It's good to be back. I've been sitting in the shadows, watching coverage, and waiting for the day my other responsibilities would let me get away for a weekend and I could resume attacking for two. This past weekend, that day came. It was time to see what had become of modern Standard.
My first idea was to use a card I've wanted to get a crack at ever since I saw it: Sphinx of the Chimes. The math appealed to me right away. If your deck is 24 lands and then 4 copies each of 9 spells, then for every 2 cards you discard you draw 2.4 spells. This effect snowballs, after which you can turn your undesired cards into both more and more useful cards, ensuring your overwhelming victory, so the rest of the deck was a Bant shell designed to stay alive long enough to make that happen. There was just one problem.
The bastards wouldn't die, and they also refused to try to counter my spells.
As I quickly learned, today's control decks gain a lot of life and draw a lot of cards, and they cast Supreme Verdict and Terminus a lot without countering much. Then they deck you. If you're drawing your entire deck, it may sound like it's enough to beat them, but that depends what you've put into your deck. Early versions didn't have that much in the way of ways to win beyond Sphinx, Thragtusk, and Azorius Keyrune. That wasn't getting the job done. I added Restoration Angel, which helped, but it wasn't good enough.
I then added Unburial Rites, and the deck essentially never stopped putting out good men with its mana. But that wasn't good enough either. People wouldn't die. At this point, I realized that even without Sphinx I would almost never fail to tap all my mana, which meant, as Seth Burn pointed out to me, that I didn't need the Sphinx. So I cut it, which gave the deck a lot of flexibility.
I was in three colors, then four, then five, as a Bant deck that splashed for Slaughter Games out of the sideboard, Unburial Rites, and Gisela, Blade of Goodnight. It needed Evolving Wilds to make the mana work out, but that was mostly painless. I even had room for colorless lands, which rotated from Gavony Township to Vault of the Archangel to Alchemist's Refuge to try to solve different problems and quite possibly should have been Kessig Wolf Run all along.
The problem was that you needed a different trump to beat different decks or they'd end up trumping your trumps, and you needed enough mana to accelerate to that many big trumps, which meant that if you played cheap cards that weren't mana acceleration or Azorius Charm, you would flood. For a while, that didn't seem to be a problem because Zombies cost a ton of money so everyone online either couldn't afford it or was streaming Cube drafts. There were some aggressive decks out there, but a fourth turn Thragtusk was usually good enough if you had a little something earlier then backed it up and brought in Centaur Healer.
Then I played against Gaudenis, and Zombies took me apart because not only did I have to survive the early rush, but I also had to deal with the second wave of threats in the air. Between those two problems and the various ways such a deck can lose to itself, I was taken apart. I'd been playing BunchOfCards.dec against a real deck. While I was trying to sneak over the top of the other BunchOfCards.dec variants, I was making my Zombies matchup worse and worse. The control decks that could beat surprisingly smooth streams of giant threats and both Angel of Glory's Rise and Olivia Voldaren were still terrifying.
This wasn't working, and the Zombies deck seemed like the deck that was what every iteration didn't want to play against. If there's a deck that none of the decks you consider wants to play against, chances are that's the deck you should be playing.
Right away I discovered something about the Zombies deck that wasn't obvious from the other side of the table: too often Zombies wasn't doing anything. I was playing against Cuneo and Reid's Bant deck, and far too often I found myself sitting with burn spells in my hand and no creatures with the right mana costs to put on the board, allowing games that should have been mine to slowly slip away. When my hand was full of burn, my deck was bad at putting out threats, which was what the deck was all about. There were also Vampire Nighthawks in the build I was running, which cost a full three mana and only hit for two damage.
The first adjustment was easy, since it was a matter of moving to a different well-known build. Vampire Nighthawk moved to the sideboard, and I gave the deck three Hellriders (and a dreaded Mountain), which was a good start. But that emphasized even more the need for good men so there would be enough Hellrider triggers. What we had still wasn't enough.
We needed some more good men.
Only having four two-drops in an aggressive deck is bizarre, so I went on a search for better two-drops. The issue was that Zombies wants to play black cards over red cards as much as possible, and black didn't have another good two-drop to offer. Thrill-Kill Assassin seemed to be the best one could do, and that had two problems. The obvious problem is that it only does two damage per turn and can't block (unless you let it be 1/2), but the second is more basic: it's not a good card. I wanted a good card. Luckily, a good card was available: Crimson Muckwader. Crimson Muckwader can be harsher on the mana than it looks because it wants to come out on turn 2, and naming Lizard on a Cavern of Souls is universally a tragedy, but it's not so bad.
To make room, I cut out Searing Spear. There are a lot of decks out there that make Searing Spear terrible. Only the mirror and Mono-Red Aggro make you actively happy to have more cheap burn, and in both those cases having more cheap men is almost as good. Pillar of Flame is far more important because it can take out Geralf's Messenger and other undying creatures, and it's important to take out Avacyn's Pilgrim, so even though it's even worse than Searing Spear where it's bad, it's important enough where it's good that you can't cut it out. Sam Black later convinced me that it's better to run three Pillar and one Ultimate Price to minimize the chance of having multiple bad cards.
At this point, I told the NYC list what I was planning to play and found out that Luis Neiman was also big into Zombies, so we started talking about card choices and sideboard plans. I tried to sell him on Crimson Muckwader and the need to go light on burn, but he pushed back on both counts separately, emphasizing how good he felt Searing Spear was for him and how awkward Crimson Muckwader was on turn 2. Caverns were being forced to name Lizard.
The resulting games went about as well as you'd expect them to, and Luis migrated back to having the full eight burn spells. But not before he gave much valuable insight into sideboarding and how to play several key matchups, especially the mirror, which was vital to my success. He went on to have a good run of his own at the Grand Prix. With my permission, Gaudenis shipped our list to Sam Black and Zac Hill as well. Sam Black tried the deck out online and introduced the last important innovation: sideboarding in Olivia Voldaren.
Gaudenis unfortunately couldn't go to the Grand Prix, so I rode down with Ilya Kreyer and Zac Hill. Zac's been gone from professional Magic due to a stint in Wizards R&D, where he was responsible for such platinum hits as Cavern of Souls and Crimson Muckwader, which left him no byes with which to make his glorious comeback. He's great Magic chats and good times, and it's going to be awesome to have him only a few blocks away from me in New York City. Zac got the list relatively late but was on the ball from the beginning and provided good feedback on our various sideboarding and tuning options during his run.
Our sideboard had a lot of jobs to do. In the mirror, we needed to get small and fast with removal that wasn't Victim of Night, whereas in other places Victim of Night was the best removal spell. In some matchups, the deck needed to avoid having one-toughness creatures, or it would need to go large in general and turn into a control or skies deck with Olivia Voldaren going over its opponent instead of under with a solid removal suite. Against Bant and Esper Control, we needed to have a steady stream of threats that could hit and hit hard and have little or no removal.
The result was a tuning sideboard, allowing us to build our deck between rounds to handle what our opponent was likely to throw at us after sideboarding. With Standard having become so standardized, it was often easy to predict what we would face and choose the configuration that was best against it. Many opponents had no idea that we had access to Olivia, giving them little or no defense against her, or they would lower their deck's power level so much that they'd hand us inevitability without any way to kill us in the early game, giving them very little chance of winning.
If they were using Restoration Angels, we could transform the vulnerable Hellrider into Olivia. If an opponent lowered their curve to defend on the ground, we'd raise ours and attack in the air. If they went for Izzet Staticaster, we'd use Crimson Muckwader to avoid having more than a minimal number of one-toughness creatures while keeping the pressure on them. If they were too slow or the matchup was a pure race, we could lower our curve and go fast.
The 25th land allowed us to take out the Mountain when our red needs were low or a Swamp when our red needs were high but our curve was lower and/or we were on the draw, especially against strong opponents. Adjustments could be made based on whether we were playing or drawing first. And we could do it all while maintaining a sensible mana curve.
To get that flexibility, you give up the ability to play explicitly hateful cards such as Rakdos Charm and are forced to race against such plans. The trade-off was well worth it, and opponents with such plans will usually lighten or even abandon them in order to get faster and more defensive, as well as avoid possible enemy sideboard cards. By playing your game rather than their game, you make it impossible for them to trap you with bad cards.
Here's the list we played:
- 3 Crimson Muckwader
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Falkenrath Aristocrat
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 3 Hellrider
- 4 Knight of Infamy
- 4 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 1 Zealous Conscripts
Sam Black describes his experiences preparing for and at GP Atlantic City here. His insight into the current Standard format is strong, and I suspect a lot of people are tired of Thragtusk in particular. Thragtusk is a heavy sigh for anyone trying to run you over or using removal to deal with threats, and it currently matches up well against most of the threats coming its way and is fast enough to get there in time to save the day with minimal help. Even when your deck is built to handle Thragtusk without it being a big deal, as ours was, it's still not a card you want to see. I suspect that Gatecrash will alter these dynamics, but it is too early to know.
I had the unique opportunity to be on camera many times during the Swiss despite my late slip to 35th place, so next time I will examine situations from those matches in detail. I was on camera four times, and the archives are available here.