I got to the airport about two hours early, which has been my custom for about a dozen years now.
As a young traveler I spent much of my early twenties skirting the hour-or-so guideline RE: airport arrival, often following the lead of my kid sister who never seemed to get to the airport on time but (running good one assumes) somehow also never seemed to miss a flight. But as a New Yorker after 9/11, I recalibrated in 2001 to show up two hours early even for domestic flights, kind of always anticipating travel trouble (and have never changed back). This has been a source of annoyance for my wife whenever we have traveled with our two young children, but on balance I rarely miss flights. Last Friday I was alone.
Alone in San Jose, California, looking forward to getting back home after a one-day trip to NorCal.
The scene at the American desk was one that I don't often witness: rows and rows of free kiosks but a thrumming buildup of folks, even baggage-light young people, in the old-school check-in queues.
I attempted to claim my boarding passes and be on my way the usual way . . . but the kiosk told me that it couldn't find my flights. Argh. Queues.
I'd had an argument with a co-worker a week before. She was pricing tickets for a short trip and adamantly refused to take any connecting flight despite the fact that it would have saved the company hundreds of dollars. She had a list her arm long of reasons why. Most of them seemed a bit entitled to me honestly. I had personally booked a last-minute ticket for a day trip across the country and amazed, well, everyone including myself at the acquisition of a round-trip ticket in the $400 range less than a week ahead of time. I took a direct flight from NYC to CA but opted for a connecting flight through Dallas on the way back (which saved the company something like $800 given the timing).
Like I said: never again.
"Ah, Dallas," in the words of Chris Pikula (i.e. the Hall of Fame-aspiring Chris Pikula). Seventeen years ago I played at my first Pro Tour in Dallas; Chris made Top 4 and had planned a triumphant return to triumph in last weekend's Grand Prix.
If you follow many serious Magic players on Facebook and Twitter, you probably already know the punch line, though I didn't waiting in the line at the airport at the time. Like many Magicians on many quests to strike Grand Prix oil last week, Chris never made it to Texas.
Dallas was under several inches of ice; its location under Texas' [generally] perpetual hot sun left the city ill-equipped to deal with conditions that would have been trivial for other airports. They simply didn't have sufficient deicing capabilities and ended up closing the airport early on Friday.
For me: I got rerouted through Chicago late in the day, ended up somewhere in New Jersey at about two in the morning, and got ranched into taxi hustle that would have made Shylock wince. It would not have been the first time I randomly passed through a city concurrent to a Grand Prix without thinking about staying a while.
For zillions—nay kazillions—of Magic players if Twitter, Facebook, and personal text messages would be believed, Dallas was Mordor. Dallas was Lost's island. It was the lamppost in Narnia at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gallifrey, or the opposite of the hedge maze at the end of The Shining. Inaccessible.
And yet last weekend's Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth still managed to attract some 833 players and a heck of a Top 8. One wonders what the numbers would have been if so many travel plans hadn't been so unexpectedly snuffed.
Perhaps more surprising than the dire travel conditions keeping folks out of the Grand Prix was how its Top 8 shook out:
For the first time seemingly in months, we see a big Standard Premier Event Top 8 devoid of Mono-Blue Devotion. Sure, there were several Mono-Blue Devotion decks in the Top 16, but not the Top 8 this time. And moreover, there was just the one Mono-Black Devotion deck. Those two decks have been like a symbiotic bruise spreading all over the elimination rounds of basically every event, a tangle of Pack Rats and legendary permanents with the word "Thassa" on them and shared Nightveil Specters. But not this time.
This time we saw what seems like the emergence of a new dominant deck (which is at least in part backed up by the most recent SCG Standard Open results) and a new-old control variation that merits more than a little consideration.
Dallas-Fort Worth's ultimate winner was Marlon Gutierrez, with a heretofore unseen take on B/W Control.
B/W Control is not expressly new. Home Team favorites like Patrick Chapin and Paul Rietzl posted fantastic results with B/W at Pro Tour Theros in fact . . . but not with a deck like Marlon's.
Marlon's deck actually looks quite like a Mono-Black Devotion deck but with white instead of not-a-second-color.
This is a Pack Rat / Desecration Demon deck; it can play the Pack Rat game, riding a two-drop into Underworld Connections like the straight black equivalent. It can snuff the opponent's initiative and challenge with the 6/6 for four like the Black Devotion Plan A.
But instead of a reach game with Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Marlon's deck plays Blood Baron of Vizkopa at the five, leveraging eight great Standard-legal dual lands and the one basic Plains. Other cards to come of the white splash are 1 + 1 copies of Sin Collector and a card that seems to be everywhere in the world of performing white decks these days: Last Breath.
Last Breath's inclusion in this deck is actually quite a testament to its efficacy in the format. Many pro players are touting Last Breath as hitting everything you would ever want to interact with in Standard. "Everything" might be a little too all inclusive, but it's hard to argue with a card that takes the edge off of Chandra's Phoenix, consistently answers the most ubiquitous/maybe most "important" threat in the format (Nightveil Specter), and all manner of early attackers from Pack Rat to Mutavault. Yet we can raise an eyebrow to the card in B/W . . .
U/W, sure, you aren't going to have the same number of point removal options, but Last Breath must really be contextually excellent to merit space next to a color that can provide Hero's Downfall, Pharika's Cure, and a handful of two-mana 1B spells that proxy for Doom Blade. A nod to the shape of the format, Marlon didn't play Doom Blade at all in the main (and just the one in the sideboard) but managed to make room for Last Breath. This is understandable when you consider the impact of Mono-Black Devotion in recent months and the fact that Doom Blade doesn't even hit Mono-Blue Devotion's (maybe) scariest threat in the aforementioned Nightveil Specter.
Speaking of acrobatics in respect to other black decks, this B/W really gets a lot contextually from Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I've wondered quite a few times now what happened to Blood Baron of Vizkopa, which I thought of as the scariest threat in the format prior to Pro Tour Theros but had seemingly fallen off the metagame since. A resolved Blood Baron of Vizkopa is immune to Last Breath in more than one way and also immune to the other main point removal of the more popular Last Breath packing deck (Detention Sphere in U/W variants).
It's also immune to Doom Blade, Ultimate Price and so on also in more than one way. Blood Baron of Vizkopa is sometimes a better answer to red rush than Gray Merchant of Asphodel and will certainly outlast a non-lethal Gray Merchant in a heads-up battle of five-drops basically every time. It is quite simply the perfect card for a deck like this to gain an edge on the rest of the metagame.
Marlon and his B/W deck spiked last weekend with a perfect out-of-the-box deck choice. He had a deck that had much of the incentive of the (arguably) leading deck but expertly tuned to exploit a particular advantage while getting some mileage out of Temple of Silence that even the Mono-Black adopters of that card don't.
One thing you might anticipate in seeing in a deck like Marlon's is Whip of Erebos, especially Whip of Erebos + Obzedat, Ghost Council, but with only nine sources of white mana, the WW in Obzedat, Ghost Council might have been a stretch on consistency. For this round at least, the 4/4 for five triumphed over the legendary version. Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Obzedat, Ghost Council—both five-drops that share many similarities—have competed for a limited number of inclusions in B/W/x decks for essentially their entire existences.
- 4 Banisher Priest
- 4 Boros Elite
- 4 Daring Skyjek
- 4 Dryad Militant
- 3 Imposing Sovereign
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 2 Xathrid Necromancer
The world of Orzhov didn't end at control last weekend.
The mighty Ben Stark, Hall of Famer and Pro Tour Champion, produced a standout finish with a W/B deck from the other end of the metagame clock.
Really, two things are obtained by the marriage of colors:
1. Resilience and flexibility in the maindeck. Xathrid Necromancer gives the deck some insurance against the thing that White Weenie decks hate the most in removal/sweepers.
2. A stronger sideboard. The biggest minus sign that most one-color (especially one-color aggro) decks have is a lack of flexibility in sideboarding. Look at the amazing ability of Ben's deck to customize after sideboarding. He can go to four Necromancers against decks with lots of removal. He can murder the Desecration Demons that might otherwise hold off his little guys with Dark Betrayal. He can snag Sphinx's Revelation or other key/defining cards with Thoughtseize or Sin Collector. Even though what he obviously wanted to do was play "a White Weenie deck," in this case he got so much more in his incremental fifteen cards than he would have relegating himself only to white.
This same concept is pushed even more in Darin Minard's deck and sideboard.
Last weekend I showed Patrick Sullivan—Red Deck master and good friend (not in that order)—a Big Red deck I had been working on for an upcoming PTQ. The deck was actually performing great for me, but I wanted the nod from the best Red Deck theorist I know.
Despite a very obviously focused plan around red instants and sorceries, we have that same respect for Chained to the Rocks here.
Chained to the Rocks doesn't forward Minard's plan really. This is a deck with most of its choices set to support its eight specific creatures. Instants and sorceries make Young Pyromancer go—and go off. Instants and sorceries aimed at the opponent's head make Chandra's Phoenix buy back. Instants. Sorceries. Head. Chained to the Rocks is neither an instant nor a sorcery—nor does it target face—but it solves a lot of problems for a small Red Deck.
It kills Master of Waves (and presumably all of the Master's little friends) for one mana. It prevents Thassa from attacking or forcing anyone past a wall of Young Pyromancer tokens. Young Pyromancer can be frustrating for Desecration Demon mages (especially those like our #GPDFW winner who pack many copies of Devour Flesh), but Desecration Demon is still a huge guy in terms of blocking a small number of little guys. Any and all (and like Boros Reckoner) are answered for one mana here.
Once you make the commitment to play white in a Red Deck you get some of the same ups that Ben Stark did in his white deck. Boros Charm can deal four to the face for two, which is ahead of the curve. Warleader's Helix doesn't do nearly as much for its mana but can be backbreaking in its own way (not to mention being able to just kill a Nightveil Specter instead of just slapping face). But red cards are largely interchangeable. I don't personally know if I am playing any copies of Lightning Strike at all for instance or playing some Flames of the Firebrand or maindeck Mizzium Mortars myself. These cards despite having particular advantages and disadvantages are largely interchangeable.
But what is not interchangeable is what you get out of the side.
I mean, we only know 11/15 of Minard's sideboard, but these are eleven awesome cards. Boros Reckoner is simply one of the best creatures of its type ever. Heck of a ground holder against attack decks (especially when combined with instant speed burn, which this deck has plenty of); insane built-in Philosophy of Fire-style card advantage when facing another Red Deck.
Don't tap out! Spark Trooper is going to get you. Decks like this equate a number of cards directly to a kill. When Adrian Sullivan invented The Philosophy of Fire, he pegged one card to two damage; cards like Boros Charm and Warleader's Helix are kinda sorta two cards each. Spark Trooper is three cards offensively and "undoes" three of the opponent's cards when the opponent is trying to get you the same strat.
But more than either of these cards is the five-mana line-in-the-sand Assemble the Legion.
Die, black decks, die.
Most black decks can't answer Assemble the Legion at all. Some can move to race it but will still require drawing multiple copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel and/or Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Answer no, but kill you back faster . . . maybe. You'll note that plan is predicated on potentially massive swings in life gain against a deck that starts four copies of Skullcrack.
I absolutely adore Minard's strategy, especially his sideboard, and again, we only know 11/15. More even than PSulli counseled me, this deck gets a huge amount of value from its white splash. All those sideboard cards are huge impact, and all of them are both red and white.
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Boros Reckoner
- 4 Burning-Tree Emissary
- 4 Fanatic of Mogis
- 4 Frostburn Weird
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 2 Purphoros, God of the Forge
Reyes took a different model for Red Deck (beatdown instead of burn deck) and used a different side color splash for his value (green over white).
Principally, this is a Red Devotion deck exploiting Purphoros, God of the Forge and Fanatic of Mogis as its big linear payoff fours. Unlike the blue and black equivalents, the Red Devotion deck actually gets a lot of mileage out of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. It also has something that few other colors can boast in Burning-Tree Emissary.
Burning-Tree Emissary is just perfect in this strategy. Many beatdown decks have learned its power to drop multiple threats on turn 2 or build toward battalion. Here we have an offensive 2/2 for two that also provides some much-wanted red pips (while often setting up more friends on turn 2).
As a principally creature deck, Domri Rade is a great source of [card] advantage from the green splash, and Xenagos, the Reveler is similarly contextually powerful. Mistcutter Hydra is just great against the [generally] leading deck of the format. But I think the most interesting and least discussed big up from the green splash is actually Destructive Revelry.
There are so many artifacts and enchantments that a deck like this might hate. It is built to play a ton of two-drops if it draws the two-drops, so might fall prey to Ratchet Bomb. It has a lot of planeswalkers, so might get beaten up by Pithing Needle or Detention Sphere. There are black decks with Underworld Connections and blue decks with Bident of Thassa.
Die, permanents, die!
Destructive Revelry can just bail this kind of deck out of a lot of jams/boner jams. Sometimes a naive opponent will tap five for an Assemble the Legion in hopes of taking over a game over the next several turns.
Those guys can just take two if you know what I'm sayin'.
U/W Control was almost THE DECK hands down of this Grand Prix. With three copies of the archetype in Top 8 and a near-win by Hall of Famer William "Baby Huey" Jensen, The Deck was almost THE deck, if ya grok.
But—again, especially with a hat tip to the Open winner—U/W seems like a leading deck. Certainly its uncounterable Supreme Verdict makes for a great tool against Mono-Blue Devotion decks that can only gain advantage by committing more and more to the battlefield, and Sphinx's Revelation is a major breaker relative to the Standard power level of cards.
The other two U/W decks in the #GPDFW Top 8 played Last Breath main, but Huey only played his in the sideboard:
Instead, we see a number of one-ofs and two-ofs that merit some discussion.
- Elixir of Immortality - I think this was inevitable. Huey's deck played two Mutavaults and four total planeswalkers. This card is a way to win, a way to survive, and a way to recycle a very small number of threat cards. Last year Huey's Peach Garden Oath brother Reid Duke played it to break The Rule of Four with Sphinx's Revelation. Elixir of Immortality is Sphinx's Revelation five. And Sphinx's Revelation six, seven, whatever. As a one-mana spell, it fits better in a Sphinx's Revelation deck than it would almost anywhere else, and is itself kind of a baby half-Revelation.
- Quicken - You probably already know this, but Quicken is the mother****ing truth. It is also a one mana cantrip. The other two U/W decks in the #GPDFW Top 8 played 27 lands. Per the Comer cantrip rule, for every four one- and two-mana cantrips in a deck, you can remove one land. Huey played these two Quickens [no one else did] and shaved his lands to 26.
Joe Lossett is an Open standout many times over and in particular known for his U/W performances, albeit mostly in Legacy.
Last weekend Lossett won the SCG Standard Open in Oakland with a U/W Control deck that is subtly quite a bit different from Huey's. I would also generally say that you would be more likely to see a deck like Lossett's than a deck like Huey's, but that may change after Dallas-Fort Worth. Here are some things to be aware of:
- More ways to win. Lossett played seven planeswalkers. Often you will see something like one Aetherling main, either as well or in lieu of a planeswalker or so. Interestingly, Joe also played Elixir of Immortality so he could break the basic rules of the game in much the same way Huey did.
- Last Breath main. Last Breath seems increasingly like the defining answer card of this sub-era of this Standard. It's "just" a one-for-one and kind of a bad one from 30,000 feet, but for a deck that doesn't really care about giving back a couple of life points early, it is invaluable for taking out key three-drops like Chandra's Phoenix and Nightveil Specter. I really think you are more likely to see this main than not, especially given the testament of Last Breath in a B/W winning deck (discussed at length above).
This is what Joe's Open Top 8 looked like in Oakland:
Generally speaking, we have talked about all these archetypes (some at length) many times in the past couple of weeks, in particular Mono-Blue Devotion. As you can see, Oakland echoed recent trends with three copies of Standard's favorite deck, as opposed to Dallas which boasted the rare bagel.
The one additional call out I want to make is to G/B Aggro:
- 4 Dreg Mangler
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 3 Reaper of the Wilds
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 3 Polukranos, World Eater
- 2 Varolz, the Scar-Striped
We discussed a nearly identical deck two weeks ago given Dustin Brewer's top finish; I questioned the sustained viability of the deck (despite its very real and obvious advantages around, say, Elvish Mystic into Dreg Mangler) . . .
Looks like the deck has legs.
It certainly has a lot of options and can switch gears between fast beatdown and creature removal fairly well. Mistcutter Hydra can make for a heck of a threat against you-know-who, but the particularly interesting ace here might actually be Gift of Orzhova.
Pick a resilient creature or a moment when the opposing Red Deck is tapped and you might just win on the spot Bant Hexproof style.