"Is it better to beat the top 2% of the room or beat everyone else?"
That's the question I asked myself Friday night before Grand Prix San Antonio. While I was locked into playing a version of the U/W Flash deck that I used to make Top 8 of Grand Prix Charleston the week before, I knew I couldn't play the exact same deck again.
Cavern of Souls was everywhere, and despite being able to smoothly transition away from a counterspell-heavy deck into a tapout one, I wanted to go harder. Decks like W/G and Mono-Red weren't bad matchups already, and once you had access to Supreme Verdict, they were cakewalks.
The Zombie matchup didn't work like that though. Their guys didn't die or had haste, so Supreme was pretty bad. I needed some instant speed removal to beat Thundermaw Hellkite and hopefully find something that could kill Falkenrath Aristocrat.
During the week, I experimented with splashing black and splashing red. Black gave me Nephalia Drownyard to fight control mirrors, but red provided Pillar of Flame and Izzet Staticaster, both cards that are fantastic against aggressive decks.
As you probably know already, I selected the red option. To answer my opening question, I wanted to beat everyone else. Players like Reid Duke, Patrick Chapin, Ben Friedman, Sam Black, LSV, and a host of others were playing similar Bant Control decklists, so in addition to a play disadvantage, I was at a deck disadvantage against them.
Their sweepers could usually keep me under control until they used Nephalia Drownyard to kill me, which I had no real way to interact with. The Esper deck could handily defeat the Bant deck but struggled against Zombies and Mono-Red. W/G, with all the sweepers, was a fine matchup.
One of the main things I've tried to do when building U/W tempo/control hybrids in this format is to keep them lean. Thought Scour, Think Twice, and a low-ish land count allow you to use your mana every turn and make your land drops while not being flooded. When you cut Thought Scour, you'll often spend your odd turns playing a tapped land or having a mana that goes unspent. You also have to play another land or two and will get flooded more often.
While I could mitigate the flooding issue by keeping Thought Scour, adding real removal spells instead of things like Unsummon was incredibly detrimental to the deck's game plan. With Adam Prosak's original Flash deck, something terribly wrong would have to happen in order for him to run out of gas. With Augur of Bolas and Snapcaster Mage, Unsummon could work on both offense and defense. You could almost always use it to rebuy a value creature, therefore making it a different spell entirely.
Snapcaster Mage is an efficient card, even if it only casts Dissipate, Pillar of Flame, or Azorius Charm when it enters the battlefield but never any of the other spells. However, when you add in the fact that Snapcaster Mage is, in effect, a versatile split card, you start to see why Unsummon was so good in Flash as well.
Well, when Unsummon just won't cut it against today's creature decks, you have to start looking elsewhere. Between the loss of Unsummon and adding a color, Flash was nowhere near as efficient as it was before. Instead of Unsummon being a versatile card that was good in every matchup, I had Pillar of Flames that were dead in half of them. Instead of playing awesome utility lands like Moorland Haunt and Cavern of Souls, I was forced to cut back on them in order to maintain a stable mana base.
So after all that, why did I add red at all? Well, for starters, many of the decks in the Top 8 of GP Charleston were tough matchups for me. Both Zombie decks that made it to the Top 8 were running Knight of Infamy, and that card was incredibly difficult to beat. A Caverned Geralf's Messenger was also rough.
I expected the Reanimator decks to shift to Brad Nelson's Reanicrator deck, which would be easy to beat with Pillar of Flame, Izzet Staticaster, and Supreme Verdict. It was access to those cards, especially in my maindeck, that allowed me to cut a Rest in Peace from my sideboard.
My Flash build shifted to be more controlling due to the upswing in creatures and the necessity of dealing with them. Because of that, I leaned less on Runechanter's Pike and Moorland Haunt to get me through grindy games and instead played a third Sphinx's Revelation. I was more comfortable refueling than trying to get them dead with Pike, especially since I boarded out Pikes in the majority of matchups.
That extra Revelation is great against control and aggro, especially when you have real removal spells to slow them down. Having 25 land helped me make my land drops, as did Think Twice. If you're going to play two Revelations, you should have at least two and probably three Think Twices in your deck, even if you don't like the card. Having a Sphinx's Revelation in hand while stuck on four lands is inexcusable.
In addition to the Pillar of Flames, I had two maindeck Supreme Verdicts. Those could have been Bonfire of the Damneds, but I wanted something that could clean up on turn 4 with no fuss. Bonfire, while insane against W/G, doesn't always get the job done. That said, I would have liked having some extra reach in the late game, even if I didn't always need it.
Obviously, with the mana base getting a little wilder, some sacrifices had to be made. The removal of Moorland Haunt, as I noted earlier, was a casualty, but that was mostly because I wasn't reliant on Runechanter's Pike anymore. Cavern of Souls also got the axe.
The first reason was obviously to make the mana better. After all, things like Pillar of Flame and Azorius Charm want to be cast early. The second reason was because counterspells were on the decline so resolving my Angels wasn't going to be as difficult. The third reason was because of this card:
If I was giving you a chance to counter my Angel, it's probably because it was bait. Think about what a resolved Curse of Echoes means for your opponent in a U/W mirror. Their counterspells are useless, and their Sphinx's Revelation creates a copy for you first, which will hopefully draw you into a counterspell.
Barring a lack of action on your part, it's going to be tough to lose. They can Detention Sphere it or kill you with creatures, but it interacts favorably against the rest of their deck. Against Bant, they have more Detention Spheres and Nephalia Drownyard, but it's still close to lights out.
It was because of the Bant matchup and the fact that I believed relatively few U/W decks would be doing well that I chose to cut a Curse at the last second for my own Detention Sphere. I was worried about random permanents and wanted another answer to Geralf's Messenger.
What about this guy?
Why would I play that creepy looking dude? Certainly Angel of Serenity is more powerful, right? In a vacuum, probably. W/G decks have Selesnya Charms aplenty, and my Angels died several times at GP Charleston, which sent me looking for a different fatty that I could use to finish the game.
During GP San Antonio, Drogskol Reaver didn't disappoint. In the last round against a Junk Midrange deck, he didn't have a single way to kill it. Despite my opponent's overwhelming board presence, Neil Reaves singlehandedly won me the game twice.
Granted, in another match against Reanimator, I decked myself because I didn't have a hard-hitting win condition. The Reaver would have been good if it had showed up in the first 40 cards, but alas.
Against Zombies, Angel and Reaver both suffer from the Thundermaw Hellkite problem, but unless it's Silklash Spider, I doubt you're going to find a ground guy that stands up to it. If you untap with Drogskol Reaver, that's usually game. You just have to make sure you don't die to a Hellkite-powered alpha strike.
Vs. Bant Control
To win this matchup, everything has to go right. This version of U/W/R doesn't have the tools it needs to compete. A normal Flash deck has two Pikes, two Moorland Haunts, and about six counterspells. Unsummon also helps fight through Supreme Verdict.
The games will likely go long, and I would advise not getting too aggressive. Be careful; try to keep a counterspell handy, and don't let them resolve Sphinx's Revelation. Save your counterspells for their real threats. Even if you think they're mana light, don't counter Farseek unless you're mana light and you know you won't be able to use every counterspell in your hand by the end of the game anyway.
Eventually, you'll run them out of cards or there will be an opening where you can Pike them to death.
Vs. U/W Flash
- 4 Pillar of Flame
They can't Cavern Zombie, Devil, and Dragon, so I think keeping some counterspells is probably fine. Similarly, Supreme Verdict is usually fine but not insane. Ditto Think Twice and Runechanter's Pike. Basically, you have a bunch of mediocre cards that are ok to draw one or two of per game but really suck past that.
You want to save your Pillars for important cards, not just blow them on any ole Diregraf Ghoul. They have some reach but not much, and being able to actually deal with a Geralf's Messenger is the difference between winning and losing. Gitaxian Probe would be amazing here.
Azorius Charming their big guy and then Thought Scouring them is also something that comes up a lot.
Vs. W/G Humans
This matchup should be pretty good. At GP Charleston, I beat four W/G decks, and at GP San Antonio, I beat three and lost to Josh Utter-Leyton. I definitely build my decks with W/G in mind, and so far it's paid off.
You have Staticaster and Supreme Verdict to deal with their little guys, so Pillar of Flame isn't a card you want four of against them. You still want some to stunt their development and to kill Deathrite Shaman when you need to, but you don't want to draw multiples.
Kill their guys, assemble board control, and find a way to kill them before they can draw out of it. While the matchup with normal Flash wasn't that bad when you had Rest in Peace, Angel of Serenity, and Supreme Verdict post-board, they would almost always win game 1. Now, you have the advantage, and because of that, Reanimator has to adapt again.
Overall, I liked my deck for GP San Antonio, and 10th place is nothing to scoff at. I lost to Reid Duke (4th place) with Bant Control, Josh Utter-Leyton (lost playing for Top 8) with W/G Humans (where I had good draws but his were better), and Matthew Pratser (2nd place) with B/R Zombies.
However, I did beat everyone else, so maybe I was on to something. I do the like the red cards in this metagame, just not at the expense of what they do to how the deck plays out. If I can find a way to win with straight U/W, I'd rather do that.
The Esper version was fine, but it's even slower and clunkier than U/W/R. Granted, U/W Flash is smooth as butter, so anything else is going to feel clunky. Then again, it does have a good control matchup, so it's nice to have that one in your back pocket if you need it. My homeboy Jody Keith lost playing for Top 8 with the deck, so it had a pretty good weekend too.
There was no metagame shake up like last week. W/G, B/R, Bant, U/W, and Reanimator are still the decks to beat, so it's all about finding a deck you like and tuning it to beat those (like Conley Woods). I know that I don't like Supreme Verdict outside of the W/G matchups. Zombies shrugs it off a million different ways, and nobody else has anything worth killing.
If I were playing straight U/W, I'd go back to four Unsummons and attempt to capitalize on the massive tempo gain you can get from Unsummoning a five-mana creature.
Things like Fog Bank and Hover Barrier just get tapped by the Dragon or killed. Smite the Monstrous costs a million. I guess Rebuke costs slightly less, but it's still close to a million. Pacifism is fine, but then they've already hit you once and trying to get their Messenger is dangerous. A good Ghostly Prison variant would be nice, but Sphere of Safety doesn't quite cut it. Feeling of Dread delays the inevitable, but you need to be putting them on a clock for it to matter. Intrepid Hero does some work but dies to everything. Curse of Death's Hold is fine against some of their draws but not all of them.
Overall, it's frustrating and challenging, but that's what makes Magic so fun. I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually.
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