You already know that high above it all, floating on their clouds of superior engineering, fly the flags of the three great towers of Dominarian Intelligentsia.
First, fly the Fae. Aggro-Control. Bitterblossom tokens one moment, stepping through time itself like common doorways the next with their Cryptic Commands and Mistbind Cliques, the Aggro-Control are despised for their very superiority. We hate them because they are that damn good. They are the Stoneforge Mystics, the Squadron Hawks, the Insectile Aberrations, Restoration Angels, and Snapcaster Mages. They ally themselves with quite a few of the hated Mind Sculptors; they are the Morphlings (at least the ones that came out third turn); you know the type. We abhor them and secretly adore them so much that we envy them.
Second are the Transformers. The Primes. The Primals. The Megatons. Powered by black holes. Merciless, their hands full of cards; these always look like eighteen-wheelers, punch-bugs, or PPKs... Up until the moment their hands fill with crackling energon-axes, these vicious Voltrons. More than meets the eye for so long... No one expects the Spanish Inquisition. Not the ordinary combo decks, no; the High Tides; some of the Splinter Twins; and a wink at the PsychTogs... But only on the last turn, the one when you don't have any more land. Damnable Combo-Control.
Last and apart are the Red Decks. The opposite ends of reality. No other family can be so contradictory. "Oops, I won" when Fireblast leaves the sweaty palm of a gibbering Cro Magnon; a nuanced master class in the practiced digits of the Rainmaker. I don't know how I can simultaneously choke back an upset stomach every time I see a Pyreheart in a decklist yet bask in the noonday radiance of a $.15 Guerilla Tactics triggered by a proactive Liliana of the Veil... But there you have it. Maybe it's the Glacial Ray? These fire gods are downright polarizing. Idiots. Underdogs. Luck sacks. Stone cold masters. Nothing, ever, in-between.
You know, as well, that shrouded beneath the long shadows of our three great houses scuttle 'most everyone else. Knight of the Reliquary and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben swap war stories as they polish their armor while Tarmogoyf talks about what an expensive rare he once was in Standard.... You know... Before the Jace. The Rock. Lock. Lightning Bolts, Helixes, and Rifts all. The Savage Bastard. The Goblin King. Robots lamenting the disappearance of Skullclamp. Once in a while, they rise up, look good, drive a price; spike a trophy. Bring out their dead. Bring back the dead.
This is not their story.
For far from the wonders of castles in the sky (some flaming) or the commerce of Arcbound artisans, there lies a third pile. A hillock of skulls. The lowlies: unheralded and disrespected. A ghetto of the Gruul Clans? No... No one so refined. This pile of bones is white. Or black. Or together. Our palace is built on the cycling enchantments, artifact lands, and of course fallen animal bodies...
Victims all of Akroma's Vengeance; the Mutilated form of a momentarily proud Predator Ooze; of Necropotence, wondering to itself why it sat in so many Holiday Cube sideboards. Our shield the wincing Gilded Light in response to the Mindslaver activation, our regalia the too many black mana symbols in the upper right hand corner of a Phyrexian Obliterator. The lowest of the low, the nose pickers, or RoCo sidekick girls with the nice...personalities. My people: The Non-Blue Control.
Non-Blue Control is kind of like the opposite of Aggro-Control. Not the best. Almost never good, at all. The trolls at the end of every other article, talking about the viability of their mono-black decks. They laugh at our Vicious Hungers, but we have our moments! Decree of Justice or Vampiric Tutor for Stromgald Cabal. Not "good" maybe... Not like an Upheaval-Psychatog or hiding forever behind the puzzle of a Standstill. But often boasting a good matchup.
These are my people.
And in Atlantic City this weekend?
Mama, I'm coming home.
At this stage in my Magic life, I don't get to travel to big tournaments nearly as much as I did in younger years; I had every intention of hitting [at least] the SCG Invitationals in 2012, but I only managed to play in one (where I lost my win-and-in on camera for the Standard Open to finish in the worst possible place, aka 17th). However, a Grand Prix in a state I travel to about five times a week is a hard opportunity to pass up, so... My Non-Blue Control deck and I will be rolling up our sleeves tomorrow!
I knew that Grand Prix Atlantic City was going to be the same Standard format I had been studying for months, so I decided prior to the holidays that I was going to pick a deck that I liked and just practice that a ton. I picked a four-color Naya deck inspired by Jun Yu's Top 8 deck from SCG Standard Open: Las Vegas. My initial testing went smashingly...
… And then I had a long string of queues where I just got smashed.
You know you are on a bad run when the patently mediocre Mono-Red Aggro opponent you have now played three times in a row starts off with a smiley face. Yes, this is the sixth straight game you have started on five. One too many sighing keeps with an Island and a Kessig Wolf Run for your first two-drops.
"Variance," I know.
Former WotC R&D stalwart, PT Top 8 competitor, scholar, gentleman, and now New York transplant Zac Hill had been chatting me up about my decks and—quite accidentally I think—rekindled my interest in Liliana of the Dark Realms. You may recall that Zac wrote Liliana4's preview article over on the mothership; like me, he was always a bit puzzled that she wasn't getting much love from the player base.
I really liked my Rakdos Control / Liliana of the Dark Realms deck posted back around "How Far Can We Push a Staff of Nin?" but abandoned it when aggressive Rakdos became the Grand Prix flavor of the week. My deck had gone to Dreadbore for its baseline removal because of Nicol Bolas (which generated some forums chortles), and the Rakdos decks of the day were all about hasty Hellriders or resilient Zombies. Tragic Slip was surprisingly non-strategic for a fast removal card, and I had nothing to say about a Hellrider at all. I had good removal cards, perhaps, but not the right ones. It turns out that Nicol Bolas is a legitimate finisher and important semi-soft lock in Standard for what it's worth.
With some prompting from Zac, I decided to revise my removal and work on my curve a bit. In addition, I focused on the only Liliana I wanted to cast, so no Liliana of the Veil in this version, though I made sure to lock down a set just in case:
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I switched my focus into a Destroy All Monsters deck. We no longer pay even a passing respect for Reanimator with maindeck Cremate. This deck has Pillar of Flame to kill Gravecrawler, Searing Spear to kill Hellrider, and Curse of Death's Hold to build a progressively permanents-hostile position on the battlefield.
The sideboard is also quite a bit different. I was having a lot of success against Rakdos / Mono-Red Aggro, especially early, with this deck, but I wanted a little more margin and oomph. In the final turns of a successful 1v1 queue, an opponent asked me why I was playing Cremate or at least why I had it in against his Mono-Red deck... I just wanted to lower my curve!
Zac suggested Tribute to Hunger for even more—and red-appropriate!—creature removal, along with Duress for big spell decks, including Reanimator. I switched Duress to Appetite for Brains, which is slightly weaker against the Reid Duke / Sam Black / Andrew Cuneo-style Four-Color Bant but is dramatically better against Angel of Serenity and especially Unburial Rites. Appetite for Brains can still take Door to Nothingness, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, and even Ranger's Path out of Omni-Door.
Against many decks, this one runs on an engine of Sign in Blood, Liliana of the Dark Realms, and Staff of Nin to kill all their guys. It is one of the best decks I have tested against G/B Ooze or the various aggressive G/W decks. As I said, you are in a good place against Mono-Red Aggro and the like... But your margins tend to be low because the deck has "only" Vampire Nighthawk to guard your life total at first.
Matchups against control decks are interesting. Like, as soon as a Four-Color Bant shows you an Elixir of Immortality, you should probably scoop. Game 1s against Omni-Door are often arduous, and it usually seems like they are getting back-to-back-to-back-to-back lucky just to stay alive (and maybe they are). But it is realistically not a great matchup maindeck.
Control or Omni-Door opponents have to be quite fortunate to walk away from a sideboarded game successful. You have an absurd number of absurdly devastating disruption cards. It isn't hard to take the bulk of an opponent's realistic action and force them to play off the top of their deck while you draw two to three cards per turn with your big permanents.
This deck is powerful. I feel like Staff of Nin often does as much or more work than Sphinx's Revelation in any deck but Reid's... And not every deck can play Sphinx's Revelation. Liliana of the Dark Realms is even better than Staff of Nin. She costs only four mana and does everything you want her to. If you have three lands and a Rakdos Keyrune, you can use her to get your fourth land (which will probably be a Blood Crypt); between them they can give you an almost Azorius level of card drawing.
The deck can be very good at cutting the opponent off from what they want to do (its flaw at that point might be winning before they recover, though). Just one Curse of Death's Hold is at least interesting; against a deck like Flash, it is a prompt for "Pike or no"… It is awfully hard to kill a man with 0/2 Wizards or Tiagos that put themselves directly into the graveyard. Multiple Curses or a Curse in concert with Rakdos Keyrune or Staff of Nin makes for an exceedingly threat-hostile environment. Rakdos Keyrune by itself can be hell on a Thragtusk, but with a Curse or a Staff online? Takes a lot of the punch out of a Restoration Angel planning to play Simian Grunts.
Ready to give a go across the wrong side of the tracks? Here are ten things to think about when playing with Liliana4 & co.
1. Appetite for Brains is cheap, but that doesn't mean you want to play it on turn 1. In fact, you want to play it as late as possible, though obviously before you get boned. If you can possibly hold on to the mana without interrupting the rest of your game plan, wait for turn 3 or 4. A favorite play is actually turn 3 Rakdos Keyrune + Appetite for Brains.
2. Sign in Blood is primarily there as a four-of way to help you hit your land drops. It's cheap, and it very often draws you into a land... Which makes it a great turn 2 play, especially on the play. At the point that you have Liliana and / or Staff of Nin online to draw your cards, think twice before you randomly burn a Sign in Blood as it can prove the last two points.
3. I'm not 100% sure on four Vampire Nighthawks main. Vampire Nighthawk is one of the strongest creatures in Standard, but turn 3 Nighthawk, turn 4 Mutilate is not much of a combo. The fourth could easily be Searing Spear or Staff of Nin #4.
4. Olivia Voldaren can go maindeck, possibly in place of one Curse of Death's Hold. She accomplishes much the same and comes down faster. The singleton Olivia can give the deck a kind of "Bant" dimension. The reason Bant is so difficult to sideboard against is that while it is a control deck, you can't side against it like Flash or Miracles—it's not just all control cards. Exposing your back to the minor Thragtusk + Restoration Angel element is like having 100 ways to stop a Marit Lage token but none for Sword of the Meek. The kinds of cards that are great against Curse of Death's Hold aren't necessarily effective against Olivia, and she is a powerful threat that is not strategic to your plan, which means that as a sideboard card you can often catch an opponent completely off-guard. For instance, your opponent might not have Selesnya Charm for want of a maindeck target.
5. Slaughter Games is there for Sphinx's Revelation decks, but you don't necessarily name Sphinx's Revelation with the first one. You can put some decks in a situation where they are drawing up X nothings... You can take Dissipate to ensure that your Rakdos's Return will resolve; you can take Thragtusk to ensure that Liliana goes ultimate.
6. It is often right to have one or two copies of Rakdos's Return in your deck, even when it doesn't seem strategic. I like one against G/W decks which have no reach and can fall victim to your voluminous removal spells. Point being that Liliana is very likely to go ultimate, meaning you can just brain the opponent for 28 or whatever; a fine consolation to their discarding zero cards.
7. Be careful laying down multiple copies of Rakdos Keyrune or Staff of Nin against Bant. A single Staff of Nin might surprise you with how well it can keep pace with Sphinx's Revelation (though not explosively). But laying multiple Keyrunes or Staves can expose you to a blowout Detention Sphere (you have no answer by the way). Not necessarily "wrong"... But you should be mindful at a minimum.
9. The toughest matchup is anything Reanimator. I cut the Cremates so you have no direct response to their big cheaty-face effects. Appetite for Brains takes both Unburial Rites and the various big Angels; a combination of Slaughter Games and Mutilate can keep you alive. But you still have to close, and they tend to have the faster high-impact topdecks.
10. The most dangerous creature for you is Thundermaw Hellkite; you can Searing Spear a Hellrider, but Thundermaw Hellkite is going to tag you for five before you can do anything about it. Margins are low in your Mono-Red Aggro matchup. Often, victory is measured by an opponent being forced to burn down a Vampire Nighthawk rather than sending it at your face. When decisions look close, err on the side of your life total.
Really looking forward to this weekend!
Cheer Liliana on over at DailyMTG!