Last weekend was your typical hackneyed cross between a wakeup call and a splash of cold water. After spending the last several individual SCG Opens winning at an excellent clip, I went from feeling "due" for a Top 8 to feeling like I was trapped in some unpredictable Bizarro World. I haven't watched the one camera match I had, but Cedric Phillips and AJ Sacher said something about "The Baltimore Massacre"...
Worse, that unending stream of edict variants were like a hypothetical wormhole, traveling me from a familiar metagame of aggro and control decks I had practiced beating to a strange vista where every subsequent opponent was some sort of life-gaining Mutilate variant. A splash of cold water, yes; filthy water that leaves fuzzy green algae hanging from your half-a-day beard like an extra beard. Swamp water.
Bizarro World continued! For close to twenty years, I have been used to making a key error or three—but being pulled out of it by some measure of good luck or superior strategy. The notion of playing my heart out, playing for every minute basis point...and then getting out drawn at a 90-10 advantage is wholly new. The third or fourth time it didn't feel particularly new anymore. But yeah, it was a frustrating couple of Opens.
For Standard, I was considering switching [back] to the other Hexproof deck, but I was super excited about a late addition to my sideboard. The weakest card in my All-American 75 was Purify the Grave—a necessary evil, perhaps, but not a card that affects the board or actually furthers your plan. I heard on The Eh Team podcast Jonathan Medina lamenting his Junk Reanimator losses to the Boros Reckoner + Blasphemous Act combo.
And that's what played tiebreaker for me (that and LSV reassuring me not to switch decks right before the tournament).
Gerry Thompson had previously said that his perceived weak point of Bant Hexproof was its lack of a coherent sideboard. As you can, see my sideboard is actually quite coherent and in fact pretty awesome.
In order to make room for three copies of Blasphemous Act, I moved one Gift of Orzhova to the maindeck. Between Gift of Orzhova and Nearheath Pilgrim, you have almost twice as many vectors to lifelink as the average Lucky Charms deck. This deck can accomplish the same infinite life loop. And, of course, there is Blasphemous Act to Aristocrats-style thirteen the opponent.
It's possible I became overly enamored with the cleverness of my sideboard; certainly, if I had known the aggro-heavy composition of the eventual Standard Top 8, I would have played Bant. Star-Spangled Slaughter is good against aggro, but Bant is better.
If I were going to play Bant, I would run 59/60 my decklist from the previous Standard Open, cutting one Simic Charm for a nice little piece of awesome ChoHawk tech:
Moorland Haunt is just too fantastic in this strategy. As long as it can keep a body in play, Bant Hexproof is absolutely ferocious. I've often said that it doesn't matter which guy is wearing the pants—just that you've got a guy. Moorland Haunt gives you a body even when the opponent can interact—and an evasive one, too! Moorland Haunt is synergistic with Rootborn Defenses and makes lemonade out of Nephalia Drownyard races. Just a wonderful idea from supercar salesman Cho.
I'd say it was a throwaway weekend, but I actually came out of it with a pretty sweet new list from a refreshing source!
Of all the relationships that I've made from the modern era of social media, one of the ones I am most thankful for is Joey Pasco, previously of Yo! MTG Taps and currently a co-host of the In Contention podcast here on StarCityGames. Among other things, Joey generously hosted me in Baltimore last weekend. With a Twitter handle like @affinityforblue, it is no stretch that Joey is a big fan of blue control decks.
I got a chance to watch Joey play his deck and help him tune it between rounds and after I dropped from the Standard Open. Joey originally played a bunch of counterspells, playing a kind of update to Ken-Min Yeoh's deck from the previous week's Dallas Open, but after a few generations of changes, we ended up with this:
In my mind, this deck is a kind of inheritor to the Tapout Blue tradition that was so dominant during the original Ravnica block in Standard. The general philosophy of Tapout is that it is unlikely the opponent can do anything better than what you can tap for so you might as well use your mana and tap out.
The original generation of Tapout decks—Jushi Blue and URzaTron—used permission to tempo the opponent long enough to get to Meloku the Clouded Mirror and Keiga, the Tide Star. This deck hasn't got any permission main. It instead uses removal and card drawing to get the time and lands necessary to produce an Aetherling to race.
You might find it odd that a deck with only seven creatures plays two + one copies of Cavern of Souls, but those Caverns are how this deck commands inevitability against other control decks. If possible, hold Cavern of Souls as your last land drop (I once screwed this up and ate a maindeck Ghost Quarter) so you can name "Shapeshifter" with Cavern of Souls, stick your Aetherling with one or more mana open, and race almost any control deck.
As a red deck—especially one with so much maindeck life gain—you can race other Aetherling decks. Aetherling is almost impossible to race conventionally with anything but Thundermaw Hellkites and almost impossible to contain long term short of Debtors' Pulpit. Moreover, most Standard "Aetherling" decks don't have this many Aetherlings (or card drawing), so hopefully you can find yours first (so you can start racing). Even if you don't, you can make up an entire turn with just one Warleader's Helix, and you can really pour on the red spells, with Searing Spear, Snapcaster Mage, and even the odd Pillar of Flame really adding up.
Speaking of that life gain, Warleader's Helix is an extremely important part of this deck's contextualization in the Standard metagame. I said before that one of the core incentives of Tapout is that you can just tap out (well, leave U up with an Aetherling, but you grok) because what you're doing is better than what they're doing, but that isn't necessarily true if you are up against Sire of Insanity.
When the opponent plays with Sire of Insanity, you must have a card that is not only an instant but cheap enough to meet it even when you are on the draw. You have to assume that the opponent can land Sire on-curve or you don't get to complain when they do and your answer is too slow. That is why I chose four copies of Warleader's Helix rather than futzing around with Turn // Burn.
This deck doesn't futz around with much; there is the one Oblivion Ring as a singleton catchall answer. The genius there is Joey's. Most mages would play a Detention Sphere for that functionality (in these colors), but Joey realized that Detention Sphere is a nonbo with sideboard all-star Renounce the Guilds.
Generally speaking, this deck can duck and jab, block and tackle with most decks in Standard. More than that, it can answer most threats with superior defensive speed or while generating value. Permission be damned! Most U/W/R decks are at a dramatic disadvantage against Esper; Lucky Charms can literally go infinite and still get decked. This one, on the other hand, can consistently land an Aetherling and effortlessly race Nephalia Drownyard.
This is not a Flash deck! So you don't want to evaluate it relative to an Augur of Bolas / Restoration Angel type deck with lots of permission. This is a dumbbell deck. You have some very fast cards and some really high-end battle cruisers but little [proactive] specifically in the middle. Half your deck is great at one thing and the other half is great at the other thing, and you have card drawing to make sure you draw the right half. You have four copies of Supreme Verdict, not Flash's 0-1; you have a wide palette of cards that work well with Snapcaster Mage, but not really the elegant fan of a Flash deck. This deck is a blunt object. Effective, maybe, but a blunt object.
This deck has one [potentially massive] strategic hole. That is that it is helpless against any strategy that is actually over-the-top more powerful than it is. I don't think you have a very good shot of beating any deck that can go infinite in game 1. Lucky Charms (infinite life) and Humanimator (infinite life and / or infinite milling) are pretty much impossible to beat in game 1 by any mechanism but racing with Aetherling. You can potentially beat these decks by disrupting them or decking them with Jace or Psychic Spiral, but if they execute their infinities it will be an uphill battle, especially in game 1.
Luckily, those strategies are fairly corner at this point, though I do make mention on account of being brained by 100 Huntmasters earlier this week. On balance, this deck is pretty good at containing Voice of Resurgence (Pillar of Flame & co.) and most other conventional threats. Again, it's awfully hard in general to race an Aetherling out of a red deck.
An extra Cavern gives you some redundancy against permission decks after sideboarding. What exactly beats a deck with seven cards in hand and an Aetherling on the battlefield? That's how Tapout thinks.
I am not particularly attached to Jace, Memory Adept, but Ral Zarek is a nonbo with Renounce the Guilds. I think you need a Planar Cleansing to deal with decks that deploy lots of permanents (i.e., opposing planeswalkers). The one card I wish I had more room for is Terminus. Terminus is exceptional right now. It can deal with Voice of Resurgence without setting up an unfavorable trigger and sidesteps Boros Charm and Rootborn Defenses.
Overall, a fun, effective, and powerful take on the strategy.