I've essentially locked in my Standard deck for the foreseeable future after another week of successful testing. So, back to Legacy!
This week, I'm exploring one of the decks from the Top 8 of Grand Prix New Jersey, U/R Landstill.
I had some unkind words for U/R Standstill a couple weeks ago. In essence, the deck sounded to me like a metagame deck that was inherently flawed against a wide field, making it a very dangerous kind of deck for the Open Series. Why did I think that to be the case?
1) The deck is filled with reactive spells, because so much of its plan hinges upon being able to cast Standstill from a neutral or favorable position. We've all been the guy holding a counterspell while being attacked--it's not a great feeling.
3) Standstill is a high variance card. When you want to have it, it's the best card in your deck; when you don't, it's among the worst. That's not the safest place to hang your hat.
In the last week, I hadn't changed my mind. So what drove me to try the deck out? First off, Stifle and Wasteland feel like a good place to be right now, as people have begun to build their decks under the assumption of both of these cards being less common. I imagine that was a large part of Daniel Olivieri's success this weekend in Atlanta, in fact.
What you also might not know is I've been aware of this deck for some time in Legacy. In fact, it's existed on Magic Online for a while in the hands of XShockWaveX, whom I've heard finished 10-2-3 at Grand Prix New Jersey himself. Collectively, a record of 23-5-3 is worth noticing in an event of this scale, especially considering they could very easily have been the only two players in the room piloting anything even close to this deck.
Plus, I do love Mishra's Factory. I decided to put the deck to the test. I know I said I'd never play it, but what would you prefer: a writer who goes back on his word or one who refuses to change his mind?
For Every Action
In discussing Legacy post-New Jersey with Gerry, he told me that I was looking at the U/R Landstill deck incorrectly. He thought I perceived it as too much of a control deck, when in actuality it was a tempo deck. I thought that was interesting, and when you look at the deck purposefully through that lens, it's more apparent. Take a pre-Khans Temur Delver list, cut some cantrips and creatures for some manlands, Standstills, and additional burn spells, and you wind up with something a lot like Lam Pham's deck.
There are decided benefits here. The most prominent is that the cards you use to take advantage of an early spell/mana inequity are very powerful--namely Mishra's Factory and Standstill. Temur Delver might have a Goyf or Delver, but if the opponent can kill it and dig their way out, then the game is still afoot. By avoiding investing too deeply into threats and using Standstill in conjunction with the manlands for pressure, your opponent is forced to choose between taking a ton of damage or letting you draw three cards and hoping whatever they have to stem the bleeding resolves.
This is great for a deck that is essentially permission, additional manlands, and burn spells, as you can likely continue putting the screws to them regardless.
Of course, it's not all sunshine and roses. First off, being on the draw is often going to be a big disadvantage. Having Stifle and Wasteland in your hand on the play is fantastic, but on the draw they're both decidedly worse. The range of keepable hands varies pretty solidly depending on who wins the die roll, as you need to skew towards hands with Bolts when you're on the draw in order to ensure you can restore parity against something like a turn 1 Deathrite Shaman or Delver of Secrets. Of course, if you're killing creatures, that may create windows for the opponent to resolve more, and then resolve a Cruise, and then overwhelm you.
That's an awkward place to be as a deckbuilder, compared to a deck like U/R Delver which simply assumes the driver's seat and complements its linear gameplan with high card quality and permission.
The other large issue is that the cards you're drawing are often, as I noted above, going to be elements of permission or mana disruption. Cards like Stifle, Wasteland, and Spell Pierce devalue very quickly as the game continues, so you do have to be pressuring the opponent. With Monastery Swiftspear, Delver of Secrets, and Young Pyromancer all urging players to come with plenty of cheap removal, actually attacking someone to death with a manland becomes more difficult. In addition, holding open mana to use your Spell Snares and Counterspells both slows you down and actually matters, because there are plenty of cards opponents can play that will stymie your attempts to kill them.
If the format was friendlier to just tapping out and jamming your Conclaves into the red zone, I'd like the a deck a lot more… but this is a world with multiple decks accessing a mix of Bolts, Swords, and even Pyroblasts in game 1, which is a lot of cheap interaction to fend off with conditional counterspells when you're spending your mana to attack every turn. Defending, say, a Tarmogoyf is easier and with a larger payoff, even though he is inherently a more vulnerable threat.
Of course, Standstill itself is even more variable, which complicates matters.
I had missed a few things about Standstill upon first consideration of the card in the Treasure Cruise format. First off, it's a great card against premier format threats Young Pyromancer and Monastery Swiftspear. Mishra's Factory can wrangle either of them solo (assuming the former hasn't gone absolutely ballistic already) while under a Standstill, which is a significant upside against one of the format's most heavily-played decks.
The big issue with Standstill is it's a stone blank when you're under the gun, which as I mentioned above will occur reasonably often with all of our turn 1 plays being reactive and a certain number of opponents being consistently proactive. When we fail to answer them, Standstill essentially turns off, and considering it's such a core aspect of the deck, that's dangerous.
Standstill isn't alone either. Counterspells get way worse once the opponent has pushed onto the board, so you'd better hope whatever threat is in play can be Bolted or raced successfully. In my event, I found myself resolving Standstills and essentially hoping to just glut my hand with permission and manlands over the following turns, which is the dream scenario. In games where I didn't have that Standstill, getting glutted on permission could lead to my demise.
Lam supplemented his card drawing with a Dig Through Time and a Treasure Cruise, and while I can appreciate the selective elements of Dig, I think this deck values its mana too highly to play Dig over Cruise. What's more, filling the graveyard for either varies between "tricky" to "perilously easy" because, in those games where my hand is full of permission I can't cast while I'm getting beat up, my graveyard doesn't fill very quickly. I was forced to cast a Treasure Cruise for five in exactly such a game because I'd mulliganed and was simply unable to interact with my opponent early.
The deck felt like it needed some additional ways to pull ahead, either on cards or on the board. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a viable route to both, and I know that Lam played it while XShockWaveX did not. I hate playing him in the "maindeck Pyroblast" format, but it may simply be a necessity. Crucible of Worlds has seen play in the past, and I could get behind it as well even though it would give people a sweet Abrupt Decay target. Unchecked, it's one of the more potent things the deck can do to exhaust opposing removal, which as I've said above, is a real issue sometimes. Of course, Wasteland-locking someone is also pretty good.
One card I know I want to add to the sideboard is True-Name Nemesis. I don't think it's good enough for the maindeck, but Punishing Fire can be a major struggle to break through. Considering most Punishing Fire players can access Wasteland and sometimes Life from the Loam, relying on your own Wastelands to take care of Grove isn't always feasible, and dodging Relic/Surgical Extraction with Punishing Fire is also not difficult for players experienced with fighting against those cards. True-Name is great against all of these decks, and also a sweet card to leverage against people who will likely not sideboard in anticipation of seeing him.
Here's the list I intend to keep playing with, and if I get it to the point that I like it, there's a strong chance I play it on Sunday at the Open Series in Portland, also known as my last chance to break Gerry's back-to-back.
Revolutionary, I know. I don't think Surgical is good enough to bother playing, as you have to do a bit of work to make it good against anything but Dredge, which isn't an especially common matchup (and also, I have other weapons). The singleton Flusterstorm is really just a hail mary, and while I'm often a fan of that kind of slot, I also doubt I'll feel the sting of missing it. Adding a colored land to let me Explosives for three has been a consideration, but I don't really have a strong sideboard I feel would capitalize on the color.
The Needles may be an overreaction, but I like a turn 1 answer to Vial that is very clean, and obviously the popularity of Miracles on the west coast makes this doubly valuable (though that is a generally good matchup). I'm concerned about cutting down to two Pyroclasm, but with Needle coming in for many of those matchups, it needed to be the trim.
I'm going to look closely at adding a third Treasure Cruise to the maindeck, possibly cutting a Counterspell, Snapcaster Mage, or the Jace. I tried playing three Conclaves this week and felt the burn of having multiple lands that entered the battlefield tapped. Counterspell was also a very awkward card in the deck, as I wanted to get Factory into play quickly but often had to delay it for these. Also, once Probed, the opponent could really force me into some mana-inefficient turns while baiting the counter. A Mutavault as a "fifth Factory" could make it into the deck if I trim the Counterspell and don't play Crucible.
I will point out that while Lam played a mix of additional fetchlands, it is actually very important to play the Jeskai wedge's fetchlands. Why? Because Jeskai Stoneblade/Delver decks are among the most popular in the format, and leading these fetchlands can greatly warp opposing play. It may make them more likely to play around Daze or to hold discard for Stoneforge Mystic's search, but most importantly it will reduce the chance that they play around Stifle and could thus potentially convert into free wins. This is a very real margin, don't give it away.
If Abrupt Decay decks were to make a leap in format popularity, I'd be a lot more interested in this deck. Being essentially Decay-proof is awesome, and while the deck is a little soft to Tarmogoyf in game 1, those quad Relic of Progenitus make him easy to wrangle in sideboarded games.
It's very possible that this is a "bad Temur deck" and that I'll be going back to my trusty Swiftspears or Stoneforges in Portland, but with solid fallbacks in place I've got a week to experiment, annoying opponents with lines from Jewel's most overplayed song.