Grand Prix New Jersey has come and gone, but what about the fallout?
Tons of people moved in on Delver-based Treasure Cruise strategies, and a few enterprising players managed to actually crack the code and come up with plans to beat the alarming velocity and consistency of these strategies. That's the sort of task I was quite satisfied to leave to more invested minds than my own; after all, I wasn't playing in the tournament, and it sounded like a lot of work.
Some players shifted more aggressive in search of edge, but the most successful seemed to be those willing to pump the brakes and get ready to grind. Players like Eli Kassis, Bob Huang (and playtest partner James Pogue), and champion Brian Braun-Duin were all able to build their decks to win the war while understanding they might lose the occasional battle.
Let's look a little closer at the adaptations they made.
Eli's deck is the most unique of the three, using Grixis colors and a number of underplayed cards in the format.
Dack Fayden is a powerful way to punish Umezawa's Jitte, especially considering most players can only access a single copy of the artifact. In absence of Jitte, however, Dack can fuel Cruises faster than the opponent, giving Eli the ability to quickly gas up over and over. His opponent's Cruises are less problematic if he's simply capable of casting more copies; it's only the permission he really has to worry about, as the opponent's ability to Cruise into Forces and Pyroblasts could leave him hurting.
Enter Cabal Therapy.
When Treasure Cruise was printed, I openly lamented the "death" of Cabal Therapy. Historically, trying to fight Ancestral Recalls with Duresses is a losing proposition; to get the idea, one need only imagine the difference between topdecking one versus the other when both players are depleted on resources. That said, I'm glad to see Eli fighting the good fight. Therapy's synergy with Pyromancer is well-documented, and he's packing additional removal and card advantage to let him catch back up even if the opponent is able to Cruise into the lead. By stripping their permission, he can catch back up while behind, and if he's already ahead he can remove whatever might let them do the same.
It's important to use Cabal Therapy correctly in this deck; you won't necessarily want to lead on it immediately, and many options won't be worth trading with. Make sure you use it to win the fights worth winning.
One of the largest perks to Eli's particular build is that his deck is going to have a much stronger combo game than most other Cruise decks. With permission and discard falling to the wayside, many decks like Jeskai Delver or U/R Delver are finding themselves vulnerable to old-fashioned Storm and Sneak and Show as a result of metagame inbreeding. Eli's breeding has him going the opposite direction! My favorite of these is the maindeck Nihil Spellbomb, a card I've been quietly keen to play for months. Gerry taught me the value of playing Spellbomb just for, well, value, and any fair deck with access to black mana should likely be considering at least one in this day and age. Being able to preemptively "Remand" a Cruise is quite handy, and it has versatility Relic lacks by preserving your graveyard.
The Notion Thief I'm a bit more skeptical about...
Of course, it should be obvious that I love his sideboard based on my last article championing permanent-based haymakers in decks that go a-Cruising like this. I want my opponent to cringe when I cast the vast majority of my sideboard cards, and this certainly accomplishes that!
Eli's making an unusual brew work by adjusting his approach, so kudos to him. I'm not sure I'm sold on this being truly viable in the wake of the Grand Prix, but I'm certainly intrigued enough to try! Worth noting is that Eli made it to the Top 16 and was likely the only player in the room on this deck.
Bob, however, was certainly not alone. In fact, he wound up playing a near-mirror for the Pro Tour qualification against James Pogue, the very man he'd worked with leading up to the event. Their list is a mostly stock take on Jeskai Delver in the main--well, stock in the world of Treasure Cruise, anyway. Trimming on Swords gave them less blanks against Miracles and combo decks, traditionally two of the tougher matchups in game 1, while Stoneforge Mystic always threatens to put away a fair creature deck if left unchecked. Simple enough…
Of course, one of the reasons I've been against Stoneforge Mystic is how much weaker it becomes after sideboarding. When your best game 1 card becomes your worst game 2 card, you have a problem worth solving. This list does that by being capable of shifting into a midrange deck accessing Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top! Suddenly, Smash to Smithereens isn't going to ruin your day every time, as floating a two on top isn't very difficult and will always win the permission war.
Speaking of permission, Counterbalance itself is high impact when every Treasure Cruise mirror is slamming a bunch of Pyroblasts into their deck. Not only is protecting Counterbalance via Top pretty easy, but with your own Treasure Cruises you can actually defeat both ends of the threat!
Again, we also see that Bob's tweaks give him legs up in the Delver mirror and the combo matchups, much as Eli's have. We've got a ton of fair decks among the top of the standings from the Grand Prix and very few combo decks by comparison, so I can't help but wonder if this trend was responsible, in addition to the general tendency of talented players to hedge toward blue decks with Force of Will.
Prior to the Grand Prix, Nick Spagnolo asked me if I'd consider sideboarding Counterbalance and Top in U/R Delver as a tool for the mirror, and I was very against it because I thought it cost too many slots and didn't do enough in the matchup, compared to just playing a few more Pyroblasts. When you've got something as powerful as Stoneforge Mystic to protect, however, it's a much more attractive option.
Then there's the champ himself.
I'm not going to go too deep here, as I'm sure Brian will be talking up his deck himself, but I will say that I saw this deck after writing my own article for last week and was immediately in love. Rather than shift into "protect the queen" the way Bob's deck can, BBD's solution was to play another major threat that would be resilient to the very cards that scare Mystic off.
While Delvers and True-Names are answered pretty easily, especially after sideboarding fills everyone up on Pyroblasts and other cheap interaction, a properly played Young Pyromancer will leave some value behind. If left unchecked, he can quickly snowball out of control. He's a great weapon against U/R Delver by giving you a card that goes toe-to-toe with their Pyromancers but simultaneously threatens to kill them when they're not ahead on the board, as opposed to something reactive like Electrickery.
The easiest way to exploit a U/R Delver player holding Smash to Smithereens is to use Mystic to search up Jitte, and then to pressure them while holding the Jitte. That's the tactic used by Death & Taxes, and when it works, it works very well. This forces the U/R Delver player to either hold open mana constantly or to kill the Mystic and conserve permission in order to avoid a Jitte hit connecting. Compare the implementation of that strategy to a core creature base resembling Bob's maindeck configuration! When your only other creatures are Delvers and True-Names, that's a tough subgame to win. The former is easy to trade with, and the latter is expensive. If the opponent can get ahead on the board, they can create windows to tap out during which you won't be able to connect with Jitte, keeping them in the game.
Young Pyromancer tends to leave a body or two behind and is cheap enough to come down before you're under the gun, meaning suddenly that Jitte you're sandbagging will remain live, turn after turn. It's really that simple.
Let's talk about one last deck that performed solidly at Grand Prix New Jersey: Landstill.
I'll be brief: not a fan of this deck. It's packing a lot more card advantage than most decks and seeking to create a constant stream of attrition battles that will leave it with cards and threats while its opponent has none, but the deck's lack of a proactive cards is disturbing to me. Simply put, I'd never play a deck like this in Legacy. It's not that I don't think they're viable, it's that I think you're giving up an edge by losing access to powerful ways to deliver initiative. I don't like navigating from behind in this format, so I try to avoid doing it as much as possible.
Sensei's Divining Top and Counterbalance are much more potent than Standstill in general, and that deck has far more ways to catch up from behind thanks to the miracle mechanic. With Landstill, even drawing a bunch of cards may fail because you're relying on so many one-for-one trades. I think this deck's success was a product of the metagame really breeding towards Delver decks, but that it won't stand up to the format's continued flux.
Bonus Deck: Maverick!
I loaned my U/R Delver supplies to Gerry and Josh Cho for Grand Prix New Jersey, but with local Legacy events still firing I needed a weapon to slake my bloodthirst. I first gave Death and Taxes a spin, but a couple games of the old "five lands and three Aether Vials" had me once more taking an oath to lay down the Ports.
Checking my collection, I had the majority of Maverick minus some Green Sun's Zeniths, and I decided I'd rather play that. The local Card Kingdom event was a worthy test, and I was surprised not only to 4-0 but to find that the deck felt pretty reasonably positioned in general. It feels like a fine weapon if the format's going to shifts towards Jeskai Stoneblade, as that matchup seems quite favorable with my configuration as long as you can avoid getting beat by a True-Name Nemesis that picks up equipment.
Here's the list I'm going to start playing with:
- 4 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Mother of Runes
- 1 Qasali Pridemage
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 3 Stoneforge Mystic
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Gaddock Teeg
- 4 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 1 Dryad Arbor
I'm eschewing the traditional Thoughtseizes for now, as I'm trying out a wider variety of sideboard cards. I expect I'll wind up playing two or three discard spells for those combo matchups, and maybe a singleton Pithing Needle once I know which cards I like and dislike. I built my list based on what I saw performing in previous Opens and Grand Prix Trials last weekend, but I did pop over to The Source to see if I missed anything in particular. I largely agree with the points made by Thomas Herzog over there.
The Courser of Kruphix may look strange, but it was gold in the local I played. It's an innocuous but powerful card against Stoneforge decks by gaining life to help race True-Name and happens to be immune to Lightning Bolt, making it also a nice card against U/R Delver. Strangely, it's a singleton green creature I very much doubt I'll ever Zenith for, but I'm not sure I can justify two copies as much as I like it.
I've gone to zero Batterskull after playing one in the local. I was happy to have it in my deck in exactly one game, and it's the card that gets the worst after sideboarding (as I've noted above). In Jeskai Stoneforge Mystic decks, Batterskull is an important aspect of threat density in a deck filled with spells. This deck is filled with creatures--I don't need a cheap 4/4. I'll miss the game 1 percentage against U/R Delver, but since I can't protect that percentage in sideboarding and don't need it elsewhere, it's best I let it go.
Maining Abrupt Decay gives me the ability to run only the one Pridemage, and it does wonders for the U/R Delver matchup, which I'd be very wary of otherwise. Having ways to disrupt Counterbalance is also handy, but most importantly it means the only equipment you really have to worry about is Batterskull. By attacking Mystics with Swords to Plowshares and lands with Wasteland, you can usually keep it off the table while Decay ensures a Jitte or a Sword doesn't join forces with True-Name. I may add a second Pridemage somewhere anyway, but for now I'm trying this out. This is a key point of dissent I have with Herzog, and it largely relates to the advent of Cruise decks with powerful creatures.
I'm wary of Cradle after experiencing a number of mana-related mulligans. I love Tower of the Magistrate, maybe a touch more than I should, but it seems like a good direction to go in the wake of this particular Grand Prix.
Out of the sideboard, I'm bummed that it's pretty easy to two-for-one me with Wear//Tear. I tried sideboarding out all my artifacts and Mystics against Jeskai Delver and Stoneblade, which felt reasonable, but that's not a luxury I have in the Miracles matchup. Might have to just suck this one up!
Most of the singletons are just high-powered hitters. Sword of Light and Shadow is huge against any pseudo-mirror, Bitterblossom is very powerful against Miracles or slower Stoneforge decks, Burrenton Forge-Tender neutralizes a Swiftspear and complicates life for U/R Delver, while Choke is just a really bad card I haven't fully convinced myself to cut (yet).
I can't really say that the Grand Prix shook up the format, but we definitely got a few tremors, and I'm looking forward to discovering more. I'll continue tweeting about my adventures, as the local Legacy events are relatively plentiful and competitive, so I'm really enjoying them! This weekend I'm planning to give an SCG IQ a try to practice up for Standard, and ideally that'll give me some idea of what to do come the Invitational.
I'll be honest, after losing to some really unimpressive players packing a particular pachyderm, I may have finally decided to stop brewing and just join the winning team.