It's been a while since I've written. Life has kept me busy with an engagement, an effort at career change, new housemates, and a resurgence of old hobbies. This last week I set that all aside to come to Hawaii and prepare for Pro Tour: Dark Ascension. I shared a house with Patrick Chapin, Michael Jacob, Reid Duke, Matt Sperling, Paul Rietzl, Jon Finkel, Ben Seck, Tom Martell, Jelger Wiegersma, Rich Hoaen, Andrew Cuneo, and Sam Black—with Gerry Thompson contributing remotely. These guys are all top tier competitors, and good company to boot.
The card I am most interested in from Dark Ascension is Faithless Looting. The deck manipulation/card draw effect reminds me of Brainstorm combined with a shuffle effect. Going down a card is not really desirable, but in control and combo decks, it is often more important to have the right card than lots of cards. Control decks make up for this over time by drawing more cards, while combo decks make up for it by abruptly winning with the right cards.
The Grixis deck that Patrick Chapin and I built for Worlds was (to me) originally a Burning Vengeance deck in my notebook. I kept trying to play cards that would enable Burning Vengeance to be awesome: Liliana of the Veil, red sweepers, counterspells, and the sweet package of Desperate Ravings, Think Twices, and Forbidden Alchemies. In the end, it turned out Burning Vengeance just wasn't good enough. Eventually we built a deck with a very similar shell but with Burning Vengeance being replaced by the very powerful and effective Olivia Voldaren.
The deck I built for this Pro Tour started the same way. I reasoned that Faithless Looting might be enough to push the Burning Vengeance archetype over the top. Historically, the strategy was weak to big guys with hexproof (Thrun and Dungrove Elder), to graveyard hate, and to Burning Vengeances being destroyed. I realized I wanted to have sweepers that could kill Elders, which effectively meant Day of Judgment. I wanted to have good answers to Thrun, which meant larger guys, edicts, or clones. I also wanted to give myself options to restore Vengeance in case it was destroyed. This meant answers to Oblivion Rings, such as my own Oblivion Rings, and Sun Titans in case they were disenchanted or countered. It seemed like the cards were pointing at a U/W/R Control shell to support my plan.
My initial draft looked something like:
After playing some matches with this list, it looked promising. The Geistflames were just like better Virulent Wounds. The Burning Vengeances were good at fighting persistent sources of guys like Moorland Haunt or Strangleroot Geist. The Sun Titans presented a nice endgame of recurring Ratchet Bombs or Burning Vengeances. Burning Vengeance looked like it could win control matchups on its own, faster than they were able to Nephalia Drownyard the deck out. Snapcaster Mage did pretty much nothing and needed to be cut.
I was impressed with how dangerous Sword of War and Peace was to this deck, since with a large hand size, a single hit could mean as much as ten damage even off a small token. Most of all, the Faithless Lootings were just incredible. They proved to me that the deck could play narrow cards almost fearlessly, since they could just be discarded and replaced in matches where they weren't appropriate. (In fact, they are so good that they help cover for bad card choices a little too effectively. On the upside, if you keep track of what you're discarding, it gets easier to make cuts.) It is the sort of card that invites and rewards heavy pre-boarding against an expected metagame.
When I showed the deck to the house, Michael Jacob led the charge to get me to cut Burning Vengeance and add Phantasmal Image. He had a lot of experience with his similar 5-color shell, and he thought that the card just wasn't good. I was a bit stubborn at first but eventually realized that this situation was much like the last. Where at Worlds, Burning Vengeance was a bad Olivia Voldaren, this time it was a bad Elesh Norn. Every match where I wanted to flashback spells to kill creatures one at a time, I could just wrath them all at once with the Grand Cenobite. It hurt the control matches to not have the enchantment, but it was becoming clear that control decks would not be much of the field.
After seeing the deck in action, Andrew Cuneo decided to join the bandwagon. He made a slightly different build that relied more on removal effects and Negates, where I preferred Mana Leaks. His major suggestion was to play more land, since in games, the deck found itself digging for mana. I tucked it in the back of my head and paid close attention to games to see how the lands were playing out. In the end, he seemed right; occasionally I was missing on double-white, and in games I was making sacrifices to draw cards because I needed to make my next land drop. (I think this is a key thing to watch for when tuning control decks. If you are using your card selection to get lands, rather than to choose the spell you need, it means you need more lands. This same pattern is I think what has led to Delver decks going from 19 to 21 or so lands.)
In the end, I played:
I think this deck really maximizes the strengths of Faithless Looting. There are some sweet draws where you get to maybe play a couple removal spells or counters and a Faithless Looting by turn 3 and then Unburial Rites an Elesh Norn or Sun Titan on turn 4. There are 17 flashback spells in the maindeck, which means that even when you're discarding, you're not always getting total card disadvantage. Playing two maindeck Ancient Grudge might be crazy in many decks, but considering the number of swords and potential surge of Tempered Steel, it was completely fine because it was so easy to discard and replace when dead.
Cards I chose to play:
2 Geistflame - Not the most powerful card in the deck but a valuable role player. Fine for killing the T1 plays out of the most popular aggro decks (Humans, Delver, Steel). Even better in a world where most creatures are X/1s, and preventing Sword of War and Peace equips cheaply is worthwhile. The ability to flash it back seemed like a nice bit of useful value, enough so that I didn't want to trade for Shock even though it would kill a flipped Delver of Secrets. I also really liked that vs. Wolf Run if they finally got a Primeval Titan through, this card got to interact with their Inkmoth Nexus in response to pumping with Kessig Wolf Run.
2 Ancient Grudge - It seemed that vs. decks with swords this is the card I wanted the most. Their guys are so small that without a sword they don't present an overly uncomfortable clock. However, even one hit from a sword could spell the game. Once this was in my hand or bin (with green mana), I felt I could breathe much easier. This card is very good against Wolf Run, both to mess with their mana acceleration and to deal with Inkmoths.
2 Ratchet Bomb - Pretty good against Humans and Delver, and the, well, bomb, against tokens. This card is pretty versatile and can perform in almost any kind of matchup, provided you know where you want to set it. (If you want to get to six against a Titan or seven against Karn, you'd better start early!) A nice tool for Sun Titan.
3 Oblivion Ring - Another versatile card that works well with Sun Titan. It's not quite Vindicate but has been the next best thing for a while. As you can see, I started with two in the first draft, but it was always so good that I wanted the third. I think being a one-card answer to Strangleroot Geist really put it over the top in my book. (Though, being down two life and a mana for their card is a beat for sure. Mana Leak is really the best vs. that guy.)
2 Phantasmal Image - A phenomenally positioned card at the moment. Good at killing legends, fighting with Strangleroot Geist (they trigger undying the first time and then come back to copy anything on the field), making multiple Sun Titans when one comes into play (when you're not worried about your Titan being killed or Vapor Snagged in response), and copying utility guys from Wolf Run and Pod.
4 Mana Leak - Since my deck has a powerful late game, I am pretty happy to trade one of my turns with my opponent's turn. I also have instant-speed card draw in the form of Desperate Ravings and Forbidden Alchemy, so on the chance my opponent does nothing, I can get ahead when leaving mana up.
3 Day of Judgment - Simply the best sweeper available. Don't leave home without it. MJ and Andrew were interested in Slagstorm, but in addition to being harder on the mana, I just didn't want a card that didn't answer Dungrove Elder, Hero of Bladehold, or a Titan on its own; not to mention a card that wouldn't kill a guy equipped with a Sword of War and Peace!
3 Unburial Rites, 2 Sun Titan, 2 Elesh Norn - The endgame of this deck. Unburial Rites is a fantastic card, providing virtual mana acceleration when cast from the bin and card advantage whether played from hand or the bin. Both fatties were chosen because they had an immediate impact on the board. Sun Titan often "vindicated" with an Oblivion Ring or Ratchet Bomb from the yard, while Elesh Norn "wrathed." Even if they were hit with a Vapor Snag or Fiend Hunter, they had often already done their work just by coming into play. Elesh Norn seemed the more desirable target most of the time (since most decks were creatures), but Sun Titan had a more versatile range of effects.
4 Faithless Looting, 4 Desperate Ravings, 2 Forbidden Alchemy - The draw engine of the deck focuses on getting deeper into the deck as much as putting more cards in hand. You'll notice that a lot of the cards are two- and three-ofs. Essentially, I wanted to be able to dig to these cards without getting too many copies at any given time. Cutting the third Forbidden Alchemy was hard, but I noticed that so often I had a Looting or Ravings available to flashback in the yard, I just couldn't justify the space.
4 Evolving Wilds, 21 other land - If you "ignore" the draw spells, the deck is 50 cards, so effectively 50% mana. This means it is odds on to have six lands on turn 6 and often seven on 7. This is ideal, as with flashback spells, the deck is pretty mana hungry, not to mention wants to hardcast Sun Titan or Elesh Norn if it has to. I also really like seven mana for flashbacking Unburial Rites in the face of a Mana Leak. I really like Evolving Wilds as a 3-5 color land. It seems miles ahead of most fixers in multicolor decks, especially given that it makes the cycles of M10 and Innistrad duals so much better at coming into play untapped. The deck makes 16 sources of white, which is a little shy of my usual standards for WW, but has sufficient dig to make up for it. Only six sources of black and green have been more than sufficient to get the back ends of flashback spells where needed. It usually wouldn't be enough for Unburial Rites, but Faithless Looting counts as another way to cast it.
My sideboard plans:
I just wanted to trade resources with my opponent until I could resolve an Elesh Norn or Sun Titan to lock down the match. The biggest danger is a big hit from a sword, so I would play around that as much as possible. I think the matchup is favorable pre- and post- board.
I wanted to remove expensive spells and replace them with cheaper ones so I could interact before they had a dangerous board, since they have so many counters post board that there can be a "too late." The biggest danger in this match is sword. Players new to the deck lose a huge percentage of games by not playing around sword every turn. The new version of Delver that our house played was more Tribal Spirits and probably requires a different board. I think the matchup is favorable pre-board and a push post-board.
vs. Wolf Run
I think the matchup vs. red is very favorable pre- and post-board. I think the match vs. black is a little worse, in that the deck is vulnerable to Nihil Spellbomb.
vs. Red-Green Aggro
I think this is close to a push pre- and post-board.
Ratchet Bomb as an answer for Dungrove Elder with Oblivion Ring in the same deck is pretty awkward. I think this is unfavorable pre-board. Not sure post-board, but I think they don't get much better, and Wurmcoil is pretty good.
Obviously, each control deck is different. I think this match is pretty bad, as most control decks have lots of ways to deck this one. The worse the match, the more likely I would be to keep Faithless Looting in to dig for Drownyards in hopes of finding them first. The deck often has to take the aggressive role, trying to beat down with its six-drops, while avoiding getting blown out by tapping out/low. Boarding in Drownyard gives you a chance to draw one first or to get one out of the graveyard while getting milled thanks to Sun Titan. Very unfavorable pre-board, unfavorable post-board.
Going forward, I am not sure how to develop the deck. I know there is a ton of potential here, and it isn't fully developed. I like the UWR / 5-color shell; the manabase and draw engine are very good. I certainly think that the reanimator theme could be eliminated, and it could be developed into a more controlling deck. Andrew suggested the opposite: he thought it might be right to go further into the reanimator theme, going up to the full count of Unburial Rites and increasing the number of targets. It certainly felt at times that I would like another Elesh Norn, so that I could almost always use my Unburial Rites as a Wrath vs. Delver, Humans, and R/G aggro decks. Certainly, resolving her feels like the best thing possible vs. the weenie decks. If I had to trim to experiment more, I would consider the 3rd Oblivion Ring, the 2nd Forbidden Alchemy, the 4th Mana Leak, the 2nd Ancient Grudge, and/or the 3rd Day of Judgment.
Phantasmal Image was very good everywhere, and I would consider going up to three main. Pristine Talisman feels like it might be good, as a lot of the matches come to a razor's edge on life totals (MJ suggests playing control without life gain is foolish); maindeck Wurmcoil might be another way to achieve the same objective. If Porcelain Legionnaire and Swords drop off in popularity, moving the 2nd Grudge into the board also sounds right. If the metagame stays heavily weenie dominated, I want to figure out how to get the third Elesh Norn in the deck so that I can "always" find her.
As for Faithless Looting, I think there are more decks for it to go into. For example, Reid Duke tried it out in Wolf Run Ramp and said he liked how it was playing out. If you think about it, you only need six sources of mana for a Titan or seven for a Zenith, which means 8-9 cards. On turn 4, you've drawn 3-4 cards on top of your opener, for a total of 10-11 cards. This means a player can easily go down a card to smooth out their variance. Wolf Run depends on getting the right mix of lands, accelerators, fatties, and interaction, and I think Faithless Looting is perfect for helping ensure that happens. I would also imagine it improves control matches, where excess mana sources can be exchanged for chances to draw more threats. I know Patrick has integrated Faithless Looting into his Grixis deck, replacing Ponder, while MJ also plans to put a copy into his 5-Color Control deck. The card is the real deal and will be seeing play for a long time to come.
I'll try to answer any questions posted here and try to write again next week. Until then, happy gaming.