I've never been a big fan of amusement parks, especially roller coasters. I don't handle heights well, and standing in long lines for a few minutes of excitement coupled with a healthy dose of anxiety is not my idea of a good time. Last weekend in Richmond, however, the ride lasted much longer than a few minutes.
I started the Season One Invitational with a perfect 8-0 record after the first day of competition. After a quick dinner and a reasonable night of sleep, I awoke feeling confident that I would end the day with a second Invitational top 8. After three rounds of Standard and three losses, my confidence plummeted. Nothing had gone my way. My mana creature was always killed. My lategame topdecks were never Stormbreath Dragon. And my loose keeps were never rewarded. At some point, I had to wonder if I had inherited the Brian Braun-Duin curse after beating him in the last round of the first day.
Unfortunately, I am no stranger to such downfalls myself. At the 2013 Invitational in New Jersey I started 7-0 before finding myself at 7-7. I also wrote about my experience at Grand Prix Boston-Worcester last year where a 12-0 start was followed by a 0-3 finish and a devastating top 8 miss.
Looking over my three losses it seemed to me as though I was a victim of the deck I chose. When you have 32 mana sources in an aggressive deck your draws are naturally more chaotic and fragile. But I just needed one more to stay alive before moving back to Legacy, where I would be graced with the stability and consistency that only Brainstorm can provide. Just two strong draws and I knew this roller coaster would be back on the rise.
So, of course, I mulliganed twice in the first game of round 12 and was promptly dispatched by Abzan Control. In game 2 my draw was threat dense, and a pair of Goblin Rabblemasters formed a more than serviceable second wave that was enough to win the game. In the final game my early offense was again stifled by the powerful Abzan removal, and despite having some backup, I was not confident since I was facing down a Siege Rhino and a Fleecemane Lion. A timely Roast allowed me to clear my opponent's board, and I was fortunate that the remaining cards in his hand were all lands. A few bricks later and I escaped Standard alive.
The first win of the day is always a relief, this one obviously moreso. But even sitting at a precarious 9-3, I felt calm and in control. As though I was the colorful gentleman operating the roller coaster rather than someone strapped to a metal seat traveling at 100 mph.
Despite this calm, my first game of Legacy on the second day ended with a punt. Despite this inauspicious beginning, I was able to remain focused and take the match on the back of two strong draws compounded by some early missed land drops from my opponent. Over the next two rounds, it was my opponents who made key mistakes, and as quickly as I had fallen, I was back in contention at 12-3. My excellent start left me with excellent tiebreakers, and I was able to complete the climb back with an anticlimactic draw.
Sunday saw my roller coaster once again take an abrupt turn, as my draws did not come together, and Jacob Wilson dispatched me in a quick three games. It was a disappointing finish, no doubt, but some excellent company for the rest of the afternoon along with watching a close friend make his first Open Top 8 quickly improved my mood. Looking back, I am of course happy with the weekend. These big finishes are important if I am going to make a return to the Players' Championship because I am now splitting my time between the Open Series and the professional circuit.
My Standard Deck
In preparing for the tournament, my focus was squarely on the Standard portion of the event. As the first event featuring Dragons of Tarkir, there was a clear edge to be gained in those rounds, whereas Legacy was likely to remain unchanged in any significant manner. As I wrote about last week, the card that stood out in my early testing was Surrak, the Hunt Caller, and my goal was to find the best home for it. G/R Aggro proved to be the best such home, using mana creatures to accelerate Surrak into play, and thus best leverage its haste-providing ability and Crater's Claws as a way to quickly end games after Surrak deals a lot of early damage.
Past Surrak, Dragons of Tarkir also offered Thunderbreak Regent as a powerful flying threat to pair with Stormbreath Dragon, and Draconic Roar as an upgrade to Lightning Strike once you have eight dragons.
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 3 Heir of the Wilds
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 3 Surrak, the Hunt Caller
The maindeck changed very little from the list I posted last week, with the two Forests and a Draconic Roar being cut for a Rugged Higlands and a maindeck Roast, thus moving down from 61 cards to 60. I knew I would have preferred to play 24 lands, but I decided to be a little greedy because I wanted the third Roast in the 75 but also wanted to keep the other sideboard cards.
It is the sideboard that changed significantly, with 2 Roasts, 1 Nissa, Worldwaker, and 3 Arc Lightning being replaced by 3 Wild Slash and 3 Hornet Nest. G/R Aggro struggles with smaller aggro decks because they typically can apply early pressure while also removing our early mana creatures. This deck does not have a strong defensive play like Courser of Kruphix to bridge the gap to the heavy hitters at the top end of the curve, and relying on the big creatures to stabilize the board makes it difficult to turn the corner and shift to being the aggressor, thus giving the opponent plenty of time to find a way to close out of the game.
With such glaring strategic flaws, the deck needed to find some powerful sideboard options and Hornet Nest, championed to me by Matt Costa, was the answer. The red aggro decks have very few if any good solutions to the card, and it can easily stunt their entire offense. It also conveniently replaces the poor Boon Satyr, which always trades down, to keep the curve the same.
Wild Slash was chosen over other removal options due to efficiency. You frequently do not need to deal with multiple small threats as much as you need to deal with the first one to buy the most time. Wild Slash is also useful in the mirror, where gaining an early mana advantage is crucial, while also being able to answer a Goblin Rabblemaster or a Boon Satyr. The loss of Arc Lightning would certainly hurt against Jeskai Tokens, but I reasoned that Hornet Nest would be good enough there to not necessitate its inclusion.
After the tournament, I am oddly indifferent about the deck. My overall results with it were mediocre, but several other players had strong records with the deck in the Invitational, and two players took my exact list to a top 8 finish in the Standard Open . The deck is clearly very powerful, but as I noted earlier, it is also very chaotic, and that chaos stems directly from the structure of the deck. I would certainly add the 24th land over the maindeck copy of Roast since making your early land drops is so crucial. I would also cut the Rugged Highlands for an extra basic land because lands that enter the battlefield tapped are a significant liability, and the Rattleclaw Mystics can help alleviate color issues.
The only other obvious change is to cut the sideboard Nissa, Worldwaker, which is ineffective against Siege Rhino decks and unnecessary against blue-based control decks against which G/R holds a significant advantage. Against G/B midrange decks like Abzan I only ever wanted to draw the flying threats, so Ashcloud Phoenix is the first card I would try in that slot. Another option is Chandra, Pyromaster as a means to either force our ground creatures past Courser of Kruphix/Siege Rhino or gain some card advantage to dig for more dragons.
On that note, I could also see moving the deck in a more flyer-centric direction by replacing Boon Satyr and Surrak, the Hunt Caller with Deathmist Raptor and Ashcloud Phoenix. This gives the deck more resilience to spot removal, and a creature suite that blanks nearly every ground-based defense. It does further stretch an already shaky manabase, so I would keep the Rugged Highlands in such a list.
Ashcloud Phoenix and Deathmist Raptor also block more effectively against aggro decks, gaining the deck some percentage in those matchups. If you expect many such decks, you could skew the deck in a much more defensive direction, one that is more akin to the Monsters decks we saw last year that used Sylvan Caryatid as the secondary mana creature to Elvish Mystic and Courser of Kruphix as a defensive bridge to the high-drops. Such a deck would necessarily cut Goblin Rabblemaster and look more like this:
- 2 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 2 Deathmist Raptor
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 2 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Dragonlord Atarka
I incorporated the same Deathmist Raptor/Ashcloud Phoenix package I noted earlier because it can provide some much needed card advantage alongside Xenagos, the Reveler and Courser of Kruhpix. This deck also operates more as a midrange deck, so the maindeck Roast is more useful than in the more aggressive decks. With the more defensive stance, Arc Lightning would certainly be a welcome addition to the sideboard. Given the aggressive power of the dragons, I would need to expect a lot of small aggro before playing a list like this, but it is certainly an option.
Still, I do not think the power level of this deck will ultimately be enough to overcome the structural deficiencies. There is too much efficient removal for the mana creatures to consistently execute the ramp-aggro gameplan, and I would not be surprised if I am playing a different deck this weekend in Syracuse and if this deck proves to only be a fringe player in this Standard format.
My Legacy Deck
Given the article I wrote last week, I doubt many people were surprised by my choice of G/R Aggro for the Standard portion of the Season One Invitational. On the other hand, I am sure no one was expecting me to play Sultai Delver, a deck I have no direct experience with, in the Legacy portion. I myself had assumed I would be playing Elves now that Treasure Cruise is banned, which is why I was comfortable focusing most of my efforts on Standard.
However, when it came down to tune an exact list, I was met with the harsh reality that the Legacy metagame had not completely reverted back to where it had been before Khans of Tarkir. The presence of Dig Through Time was enough for the Jeskai Pyro decks to remain viable, thus keeping the splash damage that Elves takes from people trying to answer Young Pyromancer and its hoard of Elemental tokens around. I also saw a healthy number of combo decks and the return of Miracles, both of which are bad matchups for Elves.
While the other option of picking a deck on the fly and running it with no practice was not particularly appealing, I ultimately thought it would be better than running a deck that seems to be quickly approaching obsolescence. With the return of Stifle in Delver decks, I felt as though Storm would not be nearly as good of a choice as it was for me in Philadelphia earlier this year, so I opted to look for a fair deck.
With my predilection for aggression, I immediately looked at the Delver variants. In the abstract I would favor Temur since it has the most cohesive gameplan, but in an Invitational I expected significantly more Delver and Miracles than normal, making Sultai Delver a better option. Sultai is slightly less aggressive and lacks the reach of Lightning Bolt, but it is better able to keep up with the more powerful decks in the format because it plays more powerful cards on average than the other Delver variants.
The major question I had to ask in building my list was whether or not I wanted to play Stifle. I ultimately decided to eschew the powerful but high-variance mana disruptor in favor of a slightly bigger gameplan with maindeck Liliana.
The maindeck Disfigures are something I have always liked, as one of the ways to beat Sultai Delver is by exploiting the inefficiency of Abrupt Decay relative to Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares. I rounded out the removal package with a sideboard Dismember, which I chose for its ability to kill the new delve creatures, Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, while also being useful in the early turns of the game, unlike Murderous Cut.
I saw many Sultai Delver lists using Dark Confidant as a supplemental creature, which I did not like. Delver decks gain card advantage based on their low land count and end many games quickly enough that long-term sources of card advantage are often unnecessary. That the presence of Dark Confidant often necessitates shaving a Force of Will, which I find unconscionable in a Delver deck, reinforced my dislike for the card. Sultai Delver already flirts with the line between aggro and midrange, and it is important to not blur the line too much lest you muddle much of the power of the Delver strategy.
For the most part I was very happy with the list, which is to be expected given my undefeated record. I certainly overboarded for Miracles, and it paid off, as I played the matchup three times. I do not have any specific changes at this time because I am still in the exploratory stages with the deck, but Spell Pierce certainly overperformed, while Tasigur was disappointing.
Having been a champion for a non-blue decks in Legacy for a while, it felt a little awkward playing the bogeyman combo of Brainstorm and Force of Will, but man are those cards really good. Brainstorm gets a bit more press, but after years of praying my opponent did not have the Terminus, it was great knowing I could reasonably advance my board and have their sweeper covered. I may be staying on the dark side for a while.