Hello everybody and welcome back to You Choose The Brew! Last time we explored a couple of interpretations of the Smallpox-Loam midrange strategy our brewing has carried us towards this time. Today we'll see if these decks have what it takes to focus real development power on. To do this, I've run the three lists I think have the most potential through a small gauntlet of stock lists – Temur Delver, Omni-Tell, and Miracles – to see how they perform in the face of high-level competition.
Note that we're still not looking exactly at win percentages. Instead we're looking for an impression to see if the plans we've designed into our lists actually work as we've imagined them to in matchups we're likely to face in a tournament setting – basically we don't want to know how the whole matchup plays yet, we want to know which of our plans work as we mean them to and which don't (allowing us to safely abandon that line of inquiry). As such, there will only be maindeck games here and a small number against each deck should be enough to figure out if that particular direction is worth further work, the differences between our lists aren't that huge, after all. A pretty clear mission statement so let's jump right in!
For those interested, the gauntlet lists I used:
The LD Switch
The first list I think had potential last week is the land destruction-heavy list incorporating Vindicate and Sinkhole. This is just an angle of attack many decks aren't expecting in such a heavy implementation and could therefore do very well in the current format.
- 4 Pack Rat
Here's how the gauntlet game went in Q'n'D fashion:
VS Temur Delver:
Game 1: LoamPox dominates early with a double Mox Diamond opening and two Smallpox, leaving Delver with no lands and a single Nimble Mongoose in play while Loam was online. Said Nimble Mongoose supported by two Force of Wills however turns out to be enough to overpower even fully-active Loam in a rather long game.
Game 5: Turn two Pack Rat lives and the copies start popping out. No other spell is required to win this game.
Game 1: Miracles shrugs of the land destruction and takes over with Sensei's Divining Top into Entreat the Angels into Jace, the Mind Sculptor overpowering a draw that has Abrupt Decay for the Counterbalance and three (!) Sinkholes. 0-1
OK, time to hold it right there. At this point I know this isn't the way to go with our deck. Why? 2-3 isn't too bad after all, and we're only in two games against Miracles. Isn't giving up this early a bit premature?
Thing is, Smallpox and the LD element – the things that make this variant of the deck special – are supposed to be best in matchups against low-land count, nonbasic-heavy decks that often have single creature boards – and the Smallpox plus mana denial gameplan still sucked. The games the deck won were won straight up by Lingering Souls and Pack Rat taking over when I didn't draw the LD elements (or could discard them to Rat). The other traditional victim for land destruction strategies – the slow, pondering control deck that needs a lot of mana - also successfully ignored the whole LD angle of attack when I drew into it.
Why, then, would we develop a Smallpox land destruction deck? The land destruction already doesn't work where it's supposed to so it won't suddenly be great in those matchups where it's already expected to be bad. When the deck performed, it was on the back of the strong midrange cards present in all the lists; when it stumbled it, was through what made it unique. Time to accept this little caterpillar will not, in fact, turn into a beautiful butterfly.
Chalice Of Hope
Well, if the land destruction didn't work as effective disruption, maybe the powerhouse that is Chalice of the Void can do what needs to be done.
VS Temur Delver:
Game 3: Lingering Souls stalls out another Nimble Mongoose draw while Abrupt Decay stops Tarmogoyf. Eventually a combination of Dark Confidant, Life from the Loam, Wasteland, Smallpox and Liliana of the Veil grind through both Mongeese and all their lands.
Game 1: Mox into double Lingering Souls take over from turn two onwards, Abrupt Decay answers a hail-mary Entreat for two to stabilize and the game ends in a rain of 1/1 beats before Miracles can find a Terminus.
Game 2: Turn-one Mox Diamond into Chalice of the Void into turn-two Dark Confidant that looks promising until the next eight (!) draws turn out to be lands (with a hand that was all lands to begin with) and a natural Terminus happens. The extremely cantrip-heavy Miracles list is so severely crippled by Chalice, however, that Loam plus cycling lands has time to find Volrath's Stronghold plus Pack Rat, which finally takes over against a still-crippled Miracles opponent.
Game 5: Chalice meets Force of Will and, after that, LoamPox is stuck with a bunch of Smallpoxes and no extra lands in hand. Jace plus Counterbalance is enough to take over even against a finally-drawn Life from the Loam.
The main use of Smallpox is still killing creatures. This list actually seems strong, though the strong elements are Dark Confidant, Pack Rat, Lingering Souls and Life from the Loam, not the Smallpox engine (it's a fine card but actually rather dangerous because you want a lot of mana to work with too).
Game 4: No Chalice happens, Omni-Tell wins on turn three.
This version of the deck actually felt decently strong. Chalice of the Void was awesome disruption that won most games it resolved in and felt like an excellent complement to both the creature strategy and the Loam shenanigans (mainly by creating the time to use the latter to good effect). Unsurprisingly the combo matchup revolved very much around drawing the card – though Pack Rat pulled out the surprise aggressive win.
The weakest-feeling link in the deck, sadly, was still Smallpox. Yes, it did its job against Delver quite admirably, creating strong value against early creature boards. The caveat being that what we were really interested in was killing their creature, with the land lost on both sides being actually reasonably irrelevant. Add the fact that it seemed about as useful as holding an Innocent Blood against both Miracles and Omni-Tell and having your removal not be dead is one big reason Smallpox is attractive over strict removal spells in the first place and I suspect further development would tend towards finding a decent replacement for Smallpox in particular.
Killing Them Slowly
After seeing the Chalice version of the deck in action, I felt that my first instinct of wanting Chalice of the Void in the deck moving forward was pretty spot on, so for the last contender, I decided once again on the Chalice version for the slowest implementation I came up last time.
VS Temur Delver:
Game 1: Turn-one Mongoose never gets Threshold but turn-two and –three Tarmogoyf are protected from Liliana of the Veil by Force of Will and the Tarmogoyfs manage to go the distance through a Lingering Souls just in time as a Daze prevents our Eternal Witness into Abrupt Decay from taking one out of play after we attempted to stabilize through digging deep with Grisly Salvage.
Game 2: Turn-two Pack Rat actually lives against a Mongoose plus cantrip draw. It takes over rapidly while Delver only manages to find more non-Goyf creatures and countermagic that is never offered targets).
Game 3: Turn-two Delver dies to Abrupt Decay but Force of Will and Daze stop every attempt at killing a Tarmogoyf while Lightning Bolt plus Stifle and a second Force of Will stop a counter-assault via Pack Rat from happening. A second Tarmogoyf plus a Nimble Mongoose back-to-back make it so that LoamPox can never catch up.
I decide to move on to the next matchup at this point as I already have an idea about the slower approach in the Delver matchup – remember that this list and the previous one are really only different in a couple of slots, after all. After seeing Eternal Witness and the games against Temur Delver between both lists, I think I'd rather have a full set of Lingering Souls and Dark Confidant like the previous deck or significantly more removal. The better late-game simply doesn't matter against Delver because at the point where that comes online, you're usually either stable and winning already or you just don't get there without dying.
Game 2: Another turn-one Chalice on one resolves and steals the game.
Game 4: Eternal Witness plus Volrath's Stronghold actually manage to take over the late-game in a heavily-contested grind game that ends when Smallpox recursion grinds Miracles down to too little mana to come back with Entreat.
Once again I feel like I'm able to draw early conclusions. Clearly Eternal Witness plus Volrath's Stronghold is fast enough to impact this matchup and even Smallpox suddenly offers extra qualities once you can recur it again and again in the late game. That being said, about half the time I actually didn't want to cast Smallpox for long stretches of the game and when I was recurring it, I might just as well have gotten back Liliana of the Veil or had Ghost Quarter to Loam back in addition to Wasteland and restricted Miracles' mana that way.
In fact, combining these game notes with my other impressions during these games, I feel like I have a clear-enough impression of this list in comparison to the preceding one to just skip over the rest of the gauntlet to my conclusions on what we've learned about our candidates and the lists we were interested for this episode of You Choose The Brew.
First and foremost, the second list incorporating Dark Confidant and Chalice of the Void felt very consistent and, most importantly, like it was fast enough to keep up with the rest of the format most of the time. So that list would be my starting point for further development. The land destruction list honestly felt pretty bad sadly – or rather the LD elements did – while the more controlling list taught me that the Witness shenanigans actually matter mainly against the format's slow decks.
The weakest link in all these lists was, sadly, Smallpox. It felt decent at best outside of some rare situations against Delver and the super-late game against Miracles (where it still felt clunky if powerful enough to win) and ended up rotting in hand a lot (sometimes you just can't afford the land loss even against Delver and it's really weak against the other two). Basically I don't feel combining the Grisly Salvage – Life from the Loam – Pack Rat engine with Smallpox is worth the sacrifices we're making. So as sad as it is, this You Choose The Brew has actually not delivered an implementation of what we're trying to do that I'd feel was truly worth putting in the effort of further development.
That doesn't mean we haven't learned anything, however. The fundamental core of Pack Rat and Life from the Loam actually felt decently strong, as did going for Lingering Souls and Chalice of the Void in such a shell. The Grisly Salvages also felt decent, giving the deck an easy way to fix its mana early while digging towards the Loam engine at the same time, though they'd have been much improved if a higher creature count could give it a higher hit rate in the late game. They feel like a decent two- to three-drop simply to increase consistency without the threat of flooding out on them.
As such, if I were to develop these decks further, I'd drop the Smallpoxes for a more creature-focused midrange deck that uses Loam and Grisly Salvage for consistency and Pack Rat and other high impact creatures to actually provide you with a clock (and some defense) against faster decks. I think an Abzan Loam midrange deck along these lines might actually be quite promising:
Yes, I know that's very different from what we were working on for most of the series, but at some point in brewing we need to accept that a certain approach just doesn't work and we need to salvage what we can from our by learning as much from it as possible. I think this is in fact such a case and if you want to play with Smallpox, I can only recommend looking for a different setup.
And that's how this season of You Choose The Brew has to come to an end – with the sad realization that not every direction you decide to brew in will end up with a smashing success. Which makes sense, honestly, given how many deck concepts never pan out in real life.
For me – and you, too, hopefully – this effort wasn't completely in vain though. I've learned quite a bit from the experience, not least of all that the Life from the Loam engine just has to be massively underplayed in Legacy at the moment given how good it is once it gets online. The dominant performances of Lands since the beginning of this year already hinted at this simple fact but after seeing the different incarnations of this list in action, I'm more than convinced than ever that the card isn't a one-dimensional tool reserved for just that one deck.
If you want to be taking this anywhere, I suggest either taking a step back and see where a more dedicated black-based Dark Depths lists only a minority voted for earlier could take you, or to go with an actual Aggro Loam approach starting with something close to the list above, maybe with a couple of hate bears sprinkled in between the maindeck and sideboard to hopefully Impulse into with Grisly Salvage in certain matchups – Gaddock Teeg and Qasali Pridemage come to mind in particular. Loam seems strong and it should just be a matter of finding the correct pieces to complement it to make another viable midrange-ish archetype, now with an overwhelmingly strong late game.