If I were playing in a StarCityGames.com Standard Open this weekend, there is no doubt in my mind I would be entering the arena Anthony Lowry's All-American Auras deck.
Oh? You don't know this deck?
If you haven't heard the story, Anthony built this deck for the Sunday Super Series (aka "fake PTQ”) at GP Pittsburgh, where he cruised to first in the Swiss before the Top 8 switchover from Standard to Draft. Anthony subsequently went with a U/R/W Control deck, which he used to make the finals of his next [actual] PTQ... But lost to his own All-American Auras in the finals (despite it being relatively under the radar).
If you haven't seen Anthony's All-American Auras yet, you're in for a treat. Like I said, I would be playing it if I had a Standard tournament coming up!
I happened upon the deck list a bit late, to be honest, but its uniqueness in the metagame piqued my interest for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's legitimately different. I mean just look at it... While there is a fair amount of overlap with Bant Hexproof, there is really nothing else in the format exactly like it. Secondly, as a fan of Bant Hexproof, I wanted to see if there was anything that I could learn from it. All-American Auras plays a fair number of the same cards, but Anthony chose to go with red over green to shore up Bant Hexproof's potential weaknesses with this one savage card:
Boros Charm, a four-of in Anthony's deck, does three things, and two of them actively address the weaknesses of and threats to the traditional Hexproof strategy. Making your creatures indestructible protects you from Supreme Verdict (one of the cards Bant Hexproof players are most likely to complain about losing to); and the ability to brain the opponent for four damage allows the deck to win in a way other than just swinging through The Red Zone. Giving a non-interactive aggro-combo strategy a way to win with reach is actually a very powerful additional dimension. Double strike comes up a fair amount (especially when you are piggybacking the two-of enchantments like Curiosity or Gift of Orzhova), and can be relevant, but it takes a strategic backseat to the other two modes in this deck.
I had a Fourth of July-like set of firecrackers going off in my head going over Anthony's All-American deck list before ever entering a tournament queue -- half its creatures got cut from at least my version of Bant Hexproof, some of those red spells looked awfully iffy -- but in the grand tradition of an agreement I made with Adrian Sullivan in the summer of 1999... When a competent deck designer makes a new deck (that he is ostensibly more familiar with than we are) we test his or her version first before editorializing.
And again, this was a PTQ winner built by a PTQ finalist. In 2013. Competent and confident in the face of competition.
There are a couple of things to call out in All-American Auras versus Bant Hexproof.
The first and most obvious is that there are only fifteen creatures versus the eighteen to twenty you typically see in Bant Hexproof. Moreover, three of those creatures are Silverblade Paladins, the most cost-to-fragility liable creature to see play in an Auras deck... To the point that it was often only a two-of in the Bant builds even when it did see play. Unlike the deck I played last weekend with Voice of Resurgence and Strangleroot Geist, this deck simply does not have resilient creatures. Hexproof, sure; you have the same eight-pack as Bant Hexproof, and can get some of the same explosive openings, but if someone wants to play one-for-one with you, you are going to be on the wrong end of a two-for-one (or even three-for-one) quite often, and you can potentially run out.
The red enchantments at the very least look weird. Furor of the Bitten? This is the worst Rancor ever! Madcap Skills? On balance, I can see that one being pretty spectacular... Pretty hot evasion for Geist of Saint Traft and really explosive damage for Fencing Ace. I could see Mad Skillz being better than Spectral Flight a fair amount of the time.
Red enchantments aside (faulting any other reasonably serviceable offensive Aura for “not being Rancor” is approximately like criticizing Steph Curry or Kevin Durant for "not being LeBron James"), the one structural issue I had with the deck before actually going to the battleground with it was a complete lack of active one drops. Modern Bant Hexproof plays Avacyn's Pilgrim and previous versions played Abundant Growth as turn one spells. For what aspires to a non-interactive, sometimes unfair, combo-eqsue deck, I disliked (at least in theory) having to play my Geist of Saint Traft fair and square every time at best.
But all those things are the kinds of things that you grind out in practice. Were they actual weaknesses and threats? Rather, how much did they have to do with actual win percentage? I certainly aspired to find out!
I played ten MTGO tournament queues a la my pre-SCG Open prep from Aggro Aggro. Here's how they shook out:
Match One: U/R/W Control
I was a bit apprehensive about this one to start. I played a handful of Tournament Practice Room matches to warm up before hitting the queues and my win percentage there was only okay. So... U/R/W first? One of the worst matchups to start!
My draw was kind of slow in Game One but he stumbled on mana. Really, that's one of the main reasons to play a deck like this. Your opponent stumbles? Even in what is supposed to be a bad matchup? You need four lands in play to land a card like Warleader's Helix or Supreme Verdict, and those buggers aren't exactly liberal on colors. You stumble, you die.
Anyway -- slow draw on my side too, but I got a Hexproof Curiosity. I just made him answer it, getting ahead the entire time.
Match Two: Junk Rites
He showed me Arbor Elf.
Both games went the same way; I won with an Invisible Stalker and a flying Geist of Saint Traft in both; obviously Spectral Flight in Game One... He had an Acidic Slime for my Gift of Orzhova in Game Two, but I had a backup Spectral Flight for the dubya.
The big factor in this matchup (especially versus my unsuccessful win-and-in in New Jersey a few weekends ago) was that he only drew one Thragtusk between the two games.
Match Three: Jank Auras
He went first and ran out a Fencing Ace.
I answered with a Fencing Ace.
I played three Ethereal Armors on my Fencing Ace and attacked for 20 on turn three. It was about that time I was thinking to myself, “Self, you may have been underrating Fencing Ace all this time.” Holy Alex Mitchell!
Turn three! Jeez.
Game Two he had some random durdle and Unflinching Courage; if you've ever wondered who wins between “just” an Unflinching Courage and a Fencing Ace with Spectral Flight and Curiosity... Let's just say you eventually draw into Gift of Orzhova but he isn't the one drawing three cards per turn.
Match Four: Naya Blitz
He opened on Champion of the Parish in Game One; I evaluated myself for a pretty good race but he had a second turn Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. So instead of being able to play two or three buffs I could play maybe one; so I basically had to run medium-defensively. Lots of both of us leaving at least one guy back, if you grok. I ended up throwing two Geists on four-point suicide runs into Thalia and 3/3 Boars before a lethal Mad Skillz.
Game Two was the most surprising; he played turn one Clifftop Retreat, turn two Clifftop Retreat, so nothing until turn three... But his turn three included two Burning Tree Emissaries and a Lightning Mauler! I went down by one turn to double Boros Charm
Buffed Fencing Ace won the third (though not quite in the turn three kill way we saw last round).
Match Five: Dimir Control
So... Dragon's Maze. No fun for the Hexproof mage. Not at all.
He played four copies of Far // Away main deck. So, yes -- Dimir Control might be the actual worst imaginable matchup. Nothing but two-for-one Wizards and relevant instants. Esper is bad too, obviously (and gets even more Dragon's Maze anti-Hexproof with Renounce the Guilds) but Dimir can max out on the two-for-one Wizards and doesn't rely at all on a Supreme Verdict where All-American Auras actually has trump with Boros Charm.
I somehow beat three Far // Aways including a fused five that lifted his own Augur of Bolas while murdering the bejeezus out of one of my dudes. Still, he was eventually down to two cards and tapped for Aetherling. I'd been sandbagging a bunch of buff and sent in with a Fencing Ace wearing a Madcap Skills and quite a bit more for twelve-plus... He had to chump with the Aetherling and an Augur of Bolas. As he was tapped out, the Aetherling died. He did not topdeck a relevant solution.
Games two and three went according to plan... You know, his plan. Game Two I only drew two guys and he unsurprisingly killed them both; Game Three was super close... I got him to one life a couple of times with Boros Charms but he always seemed to have the Rewind. He just started attacking with 2/1 and 1/3 Wizards and I ran out.
You can't really be upset by this outcome. He had nothing but Snapcaster Mage and Augur of Bolas, Far // Away, plus of course Tribute to Hunger after boards. Everything is a two-for-one exacerbated by the fact that anything of ours that dies typically has one or more additional cards attached. It bears repeating that Boros Charm doesn't help us defend our guys the way it does against U/W.
Match Six: Junk Rites (VanMeter-style with Fiend Hunter, et al)
Game Two I played an Invisible Stalker into a Geist of Saint Traft; he took two and tapped three for Sin Collector on turn three... Which got my Purify the Grave. I found it kind of funny as if I didn't have Purify the Grave he wouldn't even have anything to nab. I responded with an Izzet Staticaster and got my guys in. He didn't have a fast Thragtusk, so no prob.
Game Three I just went all-in on Invisible Stalker. He had an Abrupt Decay for my Curiosity and an Acidic Slime for my Gift of Orzhova, but I had four or five Auras total, so there was never a turn where Stalker wasn't wearing big pants. Three Boros Charms helped finish it expediently.
Match Seven: Jund
Miracle Bonfire? No? Whew.
I suited both creatures up with Spectral Flight.
Game Two I played an Invisible Stalker and suited it up with two Ethereal Armors and two Spectral Flights... Again he didn't Miracle Bonfire of the Damned on the one turn my Hexproof guy was small enough to actually hit. Ballgame.
I think that might be what this matchup is about. Jund, more than almost any other deck in the format has flexible answers... It can hit Hexproof guys with Bonfire of the Damned, but it kind of has to, and only on particular turns. If you can dodge one of those turns, the plan should be to get your guy out of predictable Bonfire range and just try to race. I think you need every Gift of Orzhova [you play] in as you can be offensively solo but need life total to race chained accelerated Thragtusk sequences.
Abrupt Decay and Acidic Slime can be annoying because they throw off racing math. You have to be a little careful about how confident you are with a Hexproof / evasive threat, because it might be small (or suddenly block-able) before you know it.
Match Eight: B/W Mid-Range Control
This was a fairly do-nothing match from his side; he played Underworld Connections and some guys... Never really a question.
Match Nine: Mono-Black Durdles
Not a Tier One deck... That I almost lost Game One to. Apparently Typhoid Rats has Deathtouch! Sorry unpaired Silverblade Paladin!
I put Spectral Flight and a bunch of other stuff on my next [still unpaired] Silverblade Paladin; he trucked and left back Vampire Nighthawk (which, you know, has flying). I topdecked Madcap Skills to sneak past his solo blocker and steal the first.
Game Two I finally sided in Rolling Temblor. I cast it three times (mostly to kill some Crypt Ghasts) but I am not certain I actually had to do that to win. I ended up killing my own Silverblade Paladins at least twice and probably could have just tried to win with double strike pairing. But out of respect for Conley Woods I murdered each Crypt Ghast and luckily always had a follow up fellow. Invisible Stalker + Curiosity + Ethereal Armor was big enough to withstand Rolling Temblor #3 and got us there.
Match Ten: Gruul Aggro
All three games were super tight. Game One I won on one or two (flying Geist of Saint Traft).
Game Two I got him with a couple of Rolling Temblor two-for-ones but had to give up a ton of time / life to do so. I stabilized but he eventually got a Boros Reckoner; Boros Reckoner is basically unbeatable once you are in single digits (you get hit whether or not you block) and this build has neither Pacifism nor Feeling of Dread.
That run felt really impressive. Look at it this way: A deck that wins 75% of the time takes three matches in a row less than half the time.
What is even more impressive is that my only loss was to basically a hell deck with four copies of Far // Away main and what looked like an eight pack of Snapcaster Mages and Augur of Bolases. On balance, All-American Auras was able to fend off a mix of fellow Auras, a couple of G/R Blitz decks, some mid-range, The Deck to Beat, (twice) as well as a few durdlers. What else do you want for a ten-round tournament?
Personally, I tend to do better in paper Magic than I do with the same deck in MTGO queues; so like I said at the top of the article, if I had an Open this weekend I would be hella pumped to show off some Humans and Ghosts with Mad Skillz.
How about changes and updates?
Unfortunately, there is nothing in Dragon's Maze that scratches any All-American itches.
I wouldn't change a card in the main. If you have time to test, I'd recommend trying the second Slayers' Stronghold, though. I can see the power against Control / removal; but tend to be conservative in mana bases personally, which is why I subbed in the Glacial Fortress to begin with.
That said, I think the sideboard could use some work. I sided in Frostburn Weird a couple of times but I'm not sure if I ever actually cast it. It is not exactly a card that screams domination. To me it is basically "any guy" and I thought its job of withstanding attrition could be accomplished by almost anything. If you are in the market for three drops, almost every land in this deck can summon a Boros Reckoner; now there is something that might bear testing.
The version of the sideboard I played seemed under-prepared for control, with only Izzet Charm and potentially some extra creatures as options.
Volcanic Strength is a really interesting card, say on a Fencing Ace... You really want to be coming in unblocked, but on the other hand, it doesn't pull your Ace out of Searing Spear range; still, I sided it in at least three times.
I mostly disliked Rolling Temblor. It was uninspiring even when I thought it was appropriate; like against Gruul Aggro I got some two-for-ones in and still managed to take a ton of damage. Instead I would try to go up to the full four Gift of Orzhova and probably add some Nearheath Pilgrims.
Here's how my tournaments went in detail:
In case you missed the previous 2,000+ words, Anthony's deck is excellent, and I think you should consider bringing it!