Welcome back to another week of Untapped! Before I get into the article, I wanted to thank you all for the overwhelming response to last week's "We Make the Card" article. Your ideas were awesome, and I'd love to discuss them in an upcoming article, choosing some of them to find art for and give them that real card look, so feel free to add more comments! Each of you explored some really neat, unique design space, and I hope that Magic can move in those directions!
Now for a word from Ludacris' less popular cousin twice removed, Emteegee.
Welcome to Atlanta where the players play
And they earn all them wins like every way
Big swings, spell slings, some Spikes are seethin'
And pairings don't stop till eight in the evenin'
This past weekend, I traveled the farthest I've ever traveled to a tournament: a six-and-a-half-hour drive south to SCG Open Series: Atlanta featuring the Invitational. I had never been to an Invitational, and although I was qualified to participate in the main event, I decided against it. I know very little about Legacy as a format, and it turned out that I wouldn't have been able to go down a day early anyway. But I'm not gonna blather on about these little nit-picky things. I owe you all a deck!
My wife and I started the drive on Friday, and we planned to stay with her long-time pal, her groovy husband, and their two sweet girls while we were there. Admittedly, when we left Louisville that night, I still wasn't sure what kind of deck I was going to end up playing. I had two decks sleeved up and ready, but neither felt right at the time. As I considered possible game states that each deck would produce, I found both lists wanting; neither was very fast or aggressive in promoting their win conditions. Eventually, of the two, I decided to go down this path. Let's take a look at deck #1. It's an updated list of a deck that I conjured in my first few weeks on StarCityGames.com.
I've loved the two-card combo of Sphinx of the Chimes and Laboratory Maniac since the Sphinx was spoiled in September, and I was curious if it were ever possible to actually make a competitive version of this deck. I had fiddled with a purely Dimir-hued shell a couple months ago that used Heartless Summoning and was not pleased by the limited spell options and lack of utility. Moving to a Simic shell splashing a pinch of black seemed like a better option, and in playtesting this proved to be the case. This combo could go off on turn 4 at the earliest (though you'd, of course, need the perfect hand,) but the combo was difficult to interact with whenever I was able to go off. I'm not a Johnny, but this deck seemed to suit my plan for bringing a fun, unique deck to the Standard tables in the ATL.
Starting with the non-combo creatures, Thragtusk on turn 3 seemed solid against the aggro-heavy fields, and Aetherize gave me just the time I needed and offered little disadvantage to a traditional Wrath effect. Simic Charm was the perfect toolbox card; I could bounce their creature for tempo and mine to give a buddy to a lone twin in my hand, and it could protect the combo pieces with hexproof. I purposefully chose three Maniacs, as I found four copies made me draw too many and only needed one to stick. Furthermore, I wouldn't want to pitch my extras to the Sphinx in case I needed one in an awkward stack situation where my Maniac might be dead upon my last draw resolution.
Farseek and Heartless Summoning were ramp spells, of course. Jace, Architect of Thought provided an awesome turn 3 play (off a Farseek) and could provide two manaless digging attempts if the coast was clear or slow down a multi-creature aggro offensive if not. I played one Creeping Renaissance for two reasons. First, I found myself stalling after one or two Sphinx activations too frequently, and this sorcery could give me the gas I needed to stay frosty. With this card, I could also feel free to run out Thragtusks as protection instead of just fuel, and Snapcaster Mage could be rebought for value or as fuel.
Forbidden Alchemy was the digging spell of choice, allowing perfect choice of any card I might need (land, planeswalker, creature, or a copy of a card in hand). My land count was dangerously low (21), but it was necessary. The deck topped out at four (assuming you drew a Summoning), and every land I drew was another card I couldn't toss with the Sphinx. With all the card choice offered by Farseek, Forbidden Alchemy, and Jace, I assumed the land issue would not be a problem, and as long as I kept a semi-intelligent hand, it wasn't.
From the sideboard, I liked Abrupt Decay as an anti-aggro card when Aetherize alone was too slow or ineffective. Dimir Charm was perfect to stuff a Farseek or Rakdos's Return, kill a low-power critter, or to maximize my draw step when I was ready to launch. Deathrite Shaman, being his awesome utility self, was here as a way to slow aggro decks down further when I sided in my hard removal as well as being an alternate win condition if something went wrong with the Maniac plan. Besides bashing someone with Mahamoti Djinns over and over, I didn't have another path to victory, and Deathrite Shamans could provide that alternative path.
Finally, Witchbane Orbs could protect me from this deck's worst enemy: Slaughter Games. Ramping into this on turn 3 was my safest bet against any R/B/X midrange deck that could be packing this Cranial Extraction. Dimir Charm doesn't stop it (though it could stop the Farseek that would hustle them to one), so I needed something to deal with it permanently.
I playtested this deck a fair amount before driving to Georgia, and it was a lot of fun. It did have trouble with the aggro matchup pre-board, and I feared this was going to be a problem in Hotlanta, so I wanted to explore my options. An Assemble the Legion list came to mind as well, and here it is.
- 1 Angel of Serenity
- 2 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 3 Boros Reckoner
- 3 Centaur Healer
- 4 Thragtusk
- 2 Aurelia, the Warleader
- 2 Trostani, Selesnya's Voice
This list is a little more generic and therefore more self-explanatory, so I won't bore you with a card-by-card. I loved this deck's ability to ramp effectively into monsters, and Trostani's interaction with Assemble the Legion was priceless. Legion on three was really common in playtesting, and two Arbor Elfs turned out to be the perfect number, especially since I was sporting only two nonbasic Forests.
This list saw very limited playtesting, so I was just not comfortable with it. Sure, it could get the explosive draw that would provide consistent blockers for the aggro deck as well as an inevitable win condition for control and midrange matchups, but it was very untested and I was nervous about it. I took this into consideration during the drive, and as I was whizzing through Tennessee, an old deck I'd shelved a month or two before came into my mind. I dismissed it at first, thinking it too bold and focused to work in a broad, utilitarian Standard. In playtesting, it proved riotous fun, but it was topped by over-the-top decks.
But what if it could get there?
I couldn't shake it, and once I got to Atlanta, I threw it together.
Ok, here was my reasoning. I hadn't seen a burn deck do well in Standard in a while. Although red is obviously the primary color of burn, extort allows any spell to ping and pad your life total at the same time. Thus, I decided to make a very low-cost deck designed around extorting each and every spell I cast, using burn and cheap spells to out-tempo my opponent before they could resolve the threats that would kill me.
This deck concept originated on the idea of using Orzhov Charm for its Reanimation potential. Vexing Devil, although out of color, seemed like a spicy target, giving you either a very efficient burn spell twice or the most undercosted 4/3 in history. Either seemed like a win-win, so I decided to find other one-drops to complement it.
In the creature department, I knew I wanted Deathrite Shaman, as he can act as a black Grim Lavamancer that's a little harder to kill and has some added utility if you work at it. After that, I added the only one-cost extort permanent, Thrull Parasite. He could get in there during the early turns, and late game he could provide a slick Reanimation target if I just needed to drain them away. Vexing Devil entered as a pair (the old build of three proved to be too many), and I added a Stonewright as an afterthought, considering he could make combat difficult when my opponent was stuck on the ground.
My burn suite was stuffed to the gills with concentrated burn. In one way or another, every spell could kill my opponent. Even Sign in Blood could be turned against my opponent. I also maindecked Skullcrack, and here's my two cents about that.
If you don't maindeck Skullcrack, you shouldn't sideboard it. A true burn deck wants to get from 20-0 in as few turns as possible, and those decks will love the Lava Spike effect regardless of the life gain clause. The burn is not diverse enough in the format for these to have room in the sideboard, so I believe that any burn deck that would play Skullcrack should do so maindeck or not at all. Also, Thragtusks are still everywhere. In this deck, our pal Tibalt made another appearance. For more on his inclusion, see any other red-heavy decklist I've made in the past year.
The sideboard was geared mostly against control, where I feared life gain and card advantage would be my strongest opponents. All of the maindecked removal seemed sufficient for the hyperaggro decks. First, though, Boros Reckoner was an anti-aggro tool, as all but the Abrupt-Decay toting aggro decks would have trouble beating this thing. Then, Duress and Appetite for Brains made a paired inclusion. Duress is a nice, cheap removal spell for control decks and would come in over Pillar of Flame in most of those matchups. Appetite for Brains was for midrange creature decks—Obzedat, Ghost Council; Thragtusk; Unburial Rites; Restoration Angel; Angel of Serenity; Olivia Voldaren; and even Supreme Verdict could all be reasonable targets.
Rakdos Charm was meant to be the utility removal spell. It could sweep graveyards against Reanimator while nimbly avoiding interaction issues. Most Reanimator decks can destroy Rest in Peace and/or Grafdigger's Cage, but rarely can they counter an instant Tormod's Crypt. Also, it could act as a final burn spell on a clogged board, and it could destroy Witchbane Orb, a serious roadblock for my game plan. Underworld Connections was intended for the long games where I'd need to draw burn spell after burn spell to finish the job. I could gain the life right back, after all. A single Lingering Souls was added because, frankly, I couldn't think of anything better, and I thought Lingering Souls might be a welcome addition to the party in a creature-light deck.
Once I arrived at the tournament site on Saturday morning, I got straight to work playtesting the deck. One fellow, Kenny, agreed to playtest against both this and the Sphinx deck. He was on a Naya Aggro list. Both did pretty well, but I felt more comfortable slinging the burn deck. Although I wavered, when it was time to register, I penned this list.
So how'd it do?
*I got a game loss for being late (I waited in line for 45 minutes to get Steve Argyle to sign my cards and didn't want to hop out of line as I was literally up next when the pairings were posted), but when we played out our three games anyway, this was the result.
The first round proved to be one of the most intense and technical matches of Standard I've ever played.
In round 1, Evan made it rain Restoration Angels and beat down pretty hard; frankly, I had few ways to deal with Restoration Angel and Vault of the Archangel. In game 2, he made a clumsy attack, and I walled with my Boros Reckoners, topdecking the crucial Searing Spear to finish him off. Those weren't very exciting, sure, but just wait.
In game 3, we were neck and neck, and every decision was crucial to the game. In the last turns of the game, he had three (!) Blink Angels on the board, and he turned two of them sideways against me, knocking me from eleven to five. He sat at fourteen, and things were looking grim. I had a Thrull Parasite, a couple Reckoners, two Cacklers, and a Deathrite Shaman. I had a land and a Deathrite Shaman in hand. My draw step yielded a Rakdos Charm, and the gears started spinning. I was dead on board to his Angels, and my only hope was to force some damage through and, depending on his blocks, cast Rakdos Charm using the damage mode to force a draw.
I attacked with everything but my Shaman and my Parasite. He blocked the Cacklers and took six off the Reckoners, going to eight, leaving me with four creatures. He lost no creatures. I cast the Shaman and extorted, carefully saving my only black source for Rakdos Charm. He was now at seven, and I was at six. I had five creatures, and he had six (two Pilgrims, three Angels, and a Centaur Healer). A Charm would bring us both to one, but I would be dead to combat. He had to play one more creature for me to kill him. I did not have enough mana to extort the Charm, as there were no lands in the graveyard for the active Shaman to drain.
At the end of my turn, time was called. He cast a Grisly Salvage, and a glimmer of hope flickered in my eye. Surely, he'd throw away a land! He revealed a fourth Restoration Angel, some nonsense, and one Temple Garden. My palms were sweating, my mind was swirling, and my leg was quivering. It had to be just right. I wanted to use my priority after he resolved the Salvage to finish him off by draining the land. I didn't notice, however, that he had chosen the land from the Salvage. When I looked and didn't see the land in the yard, I panicked. "You took the land?!" I asked, trying to hide my dismay. Once again, the game had slipped away.
I waited anxiously for his play on his first turn after time, and he played the Temple Garden untapped. My eyes widened, and my heart raced. He thought about it and tapped it, saying that he shouldn't. My hand tightened around my cards, fearful that this was the end. He then said he had to do it, shocked himself to five, and cast Angel of Serenity. I sprung the trap, counting creatures one more time to make sure. He went to negatives, and I went to one. I uncoiled, relieved. That was an intense round 1! He was a gracious player, and we sat and discussed the last moments of the round, handed our slip to the attending judge, and hopped right into round 2.
The remaining rounds were not nearly as intense and, sadly, not nearly as favorable. In round 2, my first game against Brandon turned into a topdeck war with him sitting at one. I couldn't find a Boros Charm or Pillar of Flame and lost to a Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. Game 2 was still close, and after I Duressed away his Staff of Nin over a Rakdos's Return, he proceeded to draw the necessary mana to cast it on 3, removing two Boros Charms and a Spear from my hand, which would have been lethal burn. I resorted to the topdeck again, but he resolved Obzedat and there was little I could do to stop him.
Round 3 was embarrassing. My opponent (whose name I can't recall) played a spiffy Jund deck with the likes of Bloodthrone Vampire and Gravecrawler, making sure morbid was always active. He finished me off in game 1 with back-to-back morbid Brimstone Volleys. Game 2 was similarly disappointing; I drew next to no removal, and my boarded Reckoners sat idly in my hand with two lands out.
Round 4, with the aforementioned game loss, was peppered from the start. Jeremy was very nice, but while being very nice, he pounded me flat with his foiled-out Naya deck in our first played game. After sideboarding, Boros Reckoner proved to be crucial. He had trouble finding his colors, and I double Searing Speared after combat to lock up that game.
In the final played game, he found blocking a Stonewright / Thrull Parasite pair challenging, allowing me to force in impressive damage turn after turn. Hellrider appeared on his side, but the Devil had no pals and was forced to block. I extorted the life out of him that game, but he'd won the real game 2, so it didn't matter from a tournament perspective. As such, I dropped. With no prospects of drafts anytime soon (one had just fired) and an absence of interest in Standard side events, I took off to spend time with my wife and her friend's family.
The event was, for me, a bit of a failure; the deck proved to be ineffective against aggro decks that hit their marks but did fairly well against slower decks, even ones with life gain. Better luck next time, I guess.
My best cards were definitely Boros Charm, Deathrite Shaman, and Searing Spear. Each proved clutch cards that pulled their weight. Vexing Devil also did very well, acting as a burn spell most of the time but occasionally acting as a muscular 4/3. Thrull Parasite was also a good one, though it rarely got in the red zone.
Other cards were severely disappointing. Among them, Orzhov Charm was a huge letdown. Only once was it used to Reanimate. White was too uncommon for it to be reliable, and even when I had it, it would hurt too bad to kill something. I sided them out in every match. I only cast Tibalt once, and he was immediately Speared so...so he just didn't get his chance. Yeah, that's it. Rakdos Cacklers were outclassed early, and my own refusal to leash them meant they were pretty darn useless after I cast them. Blind Obedience also turned out to be terrible. It did very little and cost white, making it harder to cast on time. Thrull Parasite turned out to be a more sufficient, although squishier, extort engine.
The sideboard was actually fairly tight, with Boros Reckoner being the all-star. I brought them in during every match except round 2, where the black telegraphed Dreadbores, Murders, and Orzhov Charms. In retrospect, they are easily maindeck inclusions. A poor Duress decision on my part lost me game 2 of round 2, but otherwise it and Appetite did fine. Lingering Souls didn't see play, but there wasn't a match I needed it, either. Underworld Connections similarly was never drawn. Rakdos Charm, as mentioned in my round 1 notes, proved to be awesome. It really was an actual burn spell, but it took some finesse to use.
In review, the deck was too focused on the extort theme and sacrificed power for synergy. The burn plan was very effective, however, so better creatures are in order in a second draft. I'd probably play with much less white and more white support, keeping Boros Charm and perhaps adding some good white creatures or tempo spells. There's something here, but it might take some more searching to nail it down. Still, I don't regret using this list over the Sphinx deck, as that list felt much more vulnerable in game 1. Maybe the other list was right, though. Heck, the Naya list was probably the best choice of the three, but who knows.
I realized from this weekend that large tournaments may just not be my scene. I'll never stop making quirky decks, but people will always be playing their best decks at tournaments (as they should). As such, I may sit out future big events unless I can stomach playing a competitive deck that I didn't build.
That being said, more power to each of you that takes a known list and does well with it. I don't look down on those kinds of players at all, so please don't misunderstand me. I know some people do, and even now the term "netdecking" has a negative connotation unnecessarily, in my opinion. There's nothing wrong with analyzing the metagame, choosing and testing a deck, and perfecting it. That isn't how I like to play, but many do. Those players get a lot of personal enjoyment and financial/objective success with that plan, and that's great! Magic is a poly-faceted game, and I choose this part of the game to focus on.
What would you have played? Does the Sphinx deck or the burn deck appeal to you? Maybe the Legion deck is up your alley? Let me know in the comments below!
Dragon's Maze spoilers have now begun; I've already started crafting future Standard decks. Make sure to drop by next week when I have another decklist to enjoy. Until then, don't forget to untap!
- Matt H
CaptainShapiro on Magic Online