I don't attend many StarCityGames.com Open Series events. As a writer, I'm qualified to play in each Invitational without earning a slot through competition, and as a member of WotC's Pro Players Club, I prioritize opportunities to earn Pro Points at Grand Prix. If I didn't have that particular set of incentives, I think I'd play in a lot more SCG events, and this weekend did an excellent job of highlighting why.
My tournament began before I left my house last week with the most important step for any Constructed event: deck selection. After trying some Bant-based control decks and experimenting with Fog for value, I decided I couldn't get to the point where I was happy with my Rakdos matchup. In desperation, I tried going back to my G/W Humans deck to see if things had cycled back to the point where that was good. Let me tell you, it hasn't. That deck felt completely unplayable. Lots of people have access to four Knight of Infamy or four Izzet Staticaster, and either card feels completely unbeatable. In absolute hopelessness, I turned to the dark side.
Rakdos had been the best performing deck for three weeks, standing head and shoulders above everything else even when it was the deck to beat. At the last Invitational, I finally played Delver after not playing it for a while, and it felt incredible. I decided I was just being stubborn at this point by not playing the known best deck.
I looked for a red-based Rakdos deck because I believed the theory that red was the way to beat the mirror, and one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to play a deck that had a good Rakdos matchup in case others came to the same conclusion as me. I started with Kazumasa Satou's list from Grand Prix Nagoya and didn't move far from there.
I tested with it on Magic Online, and it felt…kind of ok, I guess? Then I looked at my results, which I'd been tracking, and realized I'd gone 7-3. Not amazing, but I was really out of time at this point, and that was better than it felt. This led to a realization:
When playing aggro, a deck will feel worse than it is; when playing control, a deck will feel better than it is.
I'm talking about feelings, so this won't apply to everyone, but I think, based on the reasoning, that it should apply to a lot of people.
When playing control, you spend a lot of time winning. If you lose, the game is over fairly painlessly in the first few turns, but when you win, you establish control and get to keep pulling further ahead over a very long game. When you win with aggro, the game is over in a few minutes, and when you lose, you sit there feeling helpless, hoping to draw several of your few powerful spells in a row to steal a game you've fallen behind in, which feels miserable.
If you choose a deck based on the amount of time you spend winning rather than the number of wins you get, this can lead to skewed deck selection.
For some reason, I feel like other people don't fall into this trap as much as I do. I don't get it. You don't like winning? Why? I don't mean actively winning games, I mean the mere act of winning, the time spent achieving a single win. That's the good stuff, but I've always been into delayed gratification.
Anyway, I decided that in this tournament what I'd enjoy most would be getting a lot of match wins, so I went with what I thought was the best deck: Rakdos.
For Legacy, after writing the article about how Deathrite Shaman would probably force me to play BUG instead of Zombies, I played a single match with BUG on Magic Online was lucky enough to play against someone who was playing my Zombie deck. He crushed me.
Then I realized that while Deathrite Shaman was seeing play, it was mostly in decks that were otherwise pretty terrible against my Zombie deck. I decided I had to give Zombies another chance to find out if I should play it in Grand Prix Denver. I didn't play another match of Legacy.
I started off well in the Invitational. I won my first two matches (I wasn't planning to write about this, so I'm a little sketchy on the details). I don't remember one of the decks, but I beat Reanimator and something, maybe Rakdos, and lost to Rakdos and U/W/R.
I felt like I had no idea how to sideboard against U/W/R, which was a horrible place to be in in that tournament. I didn't have enough experience with Rakdos and got punished for it. My loss against Rakdos was basically because I was too proud to Pillar of Flame his Diregraf Ghoul. I wanted to save it for something important like a Geralf's Messenger, but then he played a Falkenrath Aristocrat. My only removal spells were Pillar of Flame and Mizzium Mortars, which meant I couldn't kill the Aristocrat because they were both sorceries, and I died to the Aristocrat. If I'd kill his Diregraf Ghoul right away, I would have been at a comfortable life total if he'd played the Aristocrat right away, and then I would have been able to kill it, which would have made the game completely different.
So both of my losses in Standard were my fault. I don't know that I could have won them if I'd played differently. In the Rakdos matchup, I'm not sure my play was wrong, but I definitely didn't give myself the best chance possible. That's the problem with switching decks late in the game.
In Legacy, I lost to Goblins. My loss involved a double mulligan in game 3. I know Zombies has a good matchup against Goblins, but sometimes you just lose. I beat something, but I don't remember what, I lost to Merfolk (that matchup is really bad—my deck is weakest against big >2/2 creatures), and I lost to Storm in the last round to make sure there was no chance I'd sneak into the second day. Storm is a hard matchup, especially when I mulligan and my opponent hits two Thoughtseizes with a blind Cabal Therapy.
I didn't feel like I learned anything in either format that indicated that my deck selection was particularly bad, so I decided to play the same decks in the Opens with some slight modifications to the Standard deck. It helped that I didn't have any other cards on me.
For Standard, I decided that I wasn't that into Mizzium Mortars. It's fine but awkward. I don't like that it's a sorcery and can't do anything to the player. I knew that I needed something to get through though, so I cut three Mizzium Mortars and a Rakdos Keyrune for a Pillar of Flame, a Cavern of Souls, a Pyreheart Wolf, and a Zealous Conscripts. Adding creatures that let me get through defenses let my deck play like I had more removal without taking away as much aggression in places where I didn't need removal. I played the following to a Top 32 finish:
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 4 Knight of Infamy
- 1 Pyreheart Wolf
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Stromkirk Noble
- 3 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
The metagame for the Standard Open felt very strange. Obviously, I'm only drawing on my own personal experience, so it's a small sample size and I might have gotten weird pairings, but the only blue spell that was cast against me in the entire tournament (I think) was a single Lyev Skyknight. It wouldn't particularly surprise me if many of the people who would have played blue in the Open were playing in the Invitational, significantly skewing the metagame away from blue decks. If I'd known that, I might have played something like two Olivia Voldaren in my sideboard instead of the two Duress.
Overall, Rakdos felt fine. It's a good deck and might be the best deck, but it's not so over the top good that you have to play it. I think people might actually be learning to beat it; for example, I imagine Brian Kibler's G/B deck is very good against current Rakdos decks.
The next day, I had the opportunity to redeem my deck in Legacy. I love chances to play my Legacy deck, and I really wanted to show myself that the few rounds in the Invitational were just a fluke and that I could still play my deck in Denver.
For quick reference before I talk about the tournament, I played exactly what I played in the invitational, which was:
I played against Miracles, three Esper Stoneblade decks, Goblins, Burn, Lands, Sneak and Show, and drew once into Top 8. My loss was to Jody Keith's Lands deck that I beat in the Top 8. I beat Shardless Agent BUG in the Top 4 and lost to BUG Delver in the finals.
My matchup against Lands is probably very bad. I only won because I was lucky enough to have my only Leyline of the Void in my opening hand in both games 2 and 3. The combination of The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale (which oddly doesn't appear in his decklist in the coverage despite the fact that he was definitely playing one) and Maze of Ith is very hard to beat, and Wasteland and Rishadan Port make it hard enough for me to get a Goblin Bombardment engine going that he can get out of range with Zuran Orb before I can kill him with that.
I have some good cards against him, but I'm fundamentally a discard-based attrition deck, which is approximately the worst thing you can be against Lands.
A lot of people have approached me to tell me that they like my deck or that they're playing my deck, which makes me more surprised that I've seen so few other results with it. The deck definitely creates a lot of options, so I think the most useful thing I can do here is to talk about how to play some of its cards rather than going through how specific matchups at the tournament went. If you're looking for games, you should definitely check out the video archives of the Top 8 from the Open, which start around eight hours into this video. I believe I was under the camera all three rounds of the Top 8.
As for specific card strategies with Zombies:
Faithless Looting: This is the most powerful card in the deck, the one it was designed around. This is the reason I can play a deck without blue in Legacy since I actually have (what I consider) an even more powerful card draw/filtering effect than that staple offers. Like Brainstorm, Faithless Looting can make a deck a lot more difficult to play. Aside from merely opening up more options by giving you more cards, the timing for playing Faithless Looting can be very important.
Unlike Brainstorm, which you can sit on indefinitely and play reactively when you have to, as a sorcery Faithless Looting has to be played preemptively. On the other hand, it doesn't require a fetchland to maximize utility. In this deck, it's not nearly as tricky as a Brainstorm might be because, for the most part, you're using it to get two cards deeper and maybe generate some value by discarding Bloodghast. You're happy to do that as soon as possible. Where the decision gets difficult is when you don't have anything you specifically want to discard. You can hope to draw cards that you want to discard, or you can wait to get more draws first to try to find those cards.
In the mid to late game, you'll often find yourself in a situation where you have a Faithless Looting in the graveyard and no hand. You have to decide if you want to flash it back as soon as you have one card that isn't great in your hand or if you want to wait until you have two so that you can potentially keep two good cards if the top of your library is excellent. Those cases are a little less clear cut.
For the most part, the deck is designed to play Faithless Looting on turn 2 as the optimal turn. You'd like to lead with a Badlands and a one mana spell (Thoughtseize or a creature), then play Faithless Looting as the first thing you do on turn 2, ideally discarding Bloodghast so that you can return it with your second land, and then cast another spell.
If you don't have anything else to do, it's often correct to cast Faithless Looting on turn 1 instead, but if you don't have anything you want to discard and you already have a turn 2 play, it's likely best to wait since the mana efficiency of saving the one on Faithless Looting isn't too significant. While the deck is good at spending all of its mana, it isn't spending it on single large plays, so finding a spare mana to cast it later on won't be a problem.
Cabal Therapy: This is the second best card in the deck. When I first started playing Zombies, I sided my discard out against a lot of the fair decks, but as I've become more familiar with the matchups, I've done that less and less. Now it's extremely rare that I cut Cabal Therapy. It's simply too powerful. It comes very close to averaging better than a two for one for a single mana and a secondary cost that's often trivial, and this past weekend it was as good as a direct four for one that singlehandedly won a game.
The key question with Cabal Therapy is whether you should cast it against an unknown hand and, if you do, what to name. The answer is that with eight other cards that let me see my opponent's hand, I very rarely fire off a blind Therapy—I'd rather wait until I can hit for sure. This is particularly true if my opponent has cards like Silvergill Adept, Goblin Matron, or especially Stoneforge Mystic that will give me a sure hit for free.
When I do fire a blind Therapy, if my opponent has blue mana and I won't be flashing it back that turn, I have to name Brainstorm so that they won't be able to use it to shield their hand from my known hit with flashback the next turn. Similarly, if I can flash it back in the same turn and they have blue mana untapped, I have to name Brainstorm even though they could cast it in response because people will often be greedy enough to try to keep it to blank both sides of the Therapy.
The primary other case where I'll cast Cabal Therapy blind is when there's only a single card I'm really worried about my opponent having. This most commonly comes up when I'm on the draw against a deck like RUG Delver where I need to make sure my opponent doesn't play a turn 2 Tarmogoyf, so I'll play it on Tarmogoyf on my first turn.
Bloodghast: The third best card in the deck, Bloodghast is relatively straightforward. It can be difficult in two cases. First, be careful to order all of your land drops and sequencing to maximize value off of every single landfall trigger. Second, you have to figure out whether you want to actually pay to mana to put it into play or whether it's better to hold it and hope you can find a Faithless Looting. Another play that comes up rarely is to Cabal Therapy yourself to save mana on playing a Bloodghast or two.
Deathrite Shaman: The most important thing Deathrite Shaman does is fight Wasteland. Because your land count is relatively low, decks with Wasteland can make casting your red and white cards very difficult, but with Deathrite Shaman, you can fetch basic Swamps and use Deathrite for the colored mana for all of your other spells, allowing you to smoothly play out all of your cards in games you might otherwise not be able to play. He's also excellent against decks like Burn, making up for the loss of Blood Artist from previous builds. Of course, he has utility against other decks that are trying to use their graveyards, but honestly, it's really a corner case that you get to do anything with that because holding mana for it is so taxing.
The primary thing to understand about Deathrite Shaman is that it's there to shore up specific weaknesses to Wasteland decks. Outside of that your curve is extremely low, and you really don't need the extra mana, so it's fine to side it out. It's a good card, but it's only barely on-plan enough to make the deck. Especially if your opponent has some sweepers, it might not be what you're looking to do.
Sideboarding: The other cards are pretty straightforward, so the final issue is how to sideboard, which I imagine people struggle with since the deck relies so heavily on its synergies.
I almost never cut Goblin Bombardment (I sometimes trim one or two against creature-less decks, but even there it's a good burn spell), and I never cut more than one Bloodghast. It's ok to cut a single Bloodghast against decks with Snapcaster Mage where you want to hedge against Surgical Extraction.
Cut Thoughtseize and Cabal Therapy only in the most extreme situations. I cut Thoughtseize against Burn, but I'm not sure that's right. I even wanted both of them against Lands because the few spells he had were so important. Never cut any Faithless Lootings.
Cut Lingering Souls against combo. It's ok to keep one or two so that you aren't too light on pressure, but for the most part they're there to grind other creature decks and can be slow in a race.
Don't be afraid to side out all of the Gravecrawlers and Carrion Feeders if your opponent has multiple big creatures that can block them and good answers to big Carrion Feeders. Examples are Maverick and the BUG Delver deck with Tarmogoyf, Tombstalker, and Abrupt Decay.
That's the best advice I have for playing my Legacy Zombies deck for now.
When I was thinking about this article, I imagined telling you about the great times I had going out to eat with some outstanding groups of people and playing the card game Big Two, but I can never find a reasonable way to interject such stories into a report that clearly wants to focus on Magic. The point of these stories would be to highlight that SCG Open Series events are great opportunities to have fun weekends with friends and meet a fun assortment of people, which could affect your decision to attend, but I'm just not the right storyteller for the job.
I guess I'd like to close by thanking everyone who helped me out this past weekend in all manner of ways like finding me a place to stay, lending me cards, talking with me about my decks, and just hanging out. They all know who they are. It was a lot of fun, and I don't say that often enough.
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter