Booking flights is hard. The past six months I've booked three flights on days I didn't want to be flying and have missed two flights because I didn't realize what time I had actually booked for.
So as of last Saturday evening, I failed to book my flight for SCG Dallas, and as a result, the price of the tickets I was going to purchase had doubled overnight. What that meant for me is that Dallas was the first SCG Open I missed this year, and I can easily see looking back three months from now, being a point or two short of where I want to be, and having only myself to blame. Such is life. Although I was thrilled to see my friend and fellow writer Todd Stevens bring Value Town all the way to the Top 8!
While Todd Stevens has now overtaken me in the race for Season One Points Leader on the SCG Leaderboard, he's informed me that he won't be in attendance for the Worcester Open at the beginning of April, giving me a window to catch him! Also, Jim Davis has made his presence known and I'm looking forward to an awesome race!
Despite me not being in attendance, a funny thing happened over the weekend prior! It was Saturday night and I was busy enjoying some evening fun with a few friends downtown in SoHo, which is a place in Tampa (where I live) where people in their mid-20s go to enjoy some fun, when I realized I had a Regional PTQ to play in the next day! Much to my dismay, Standard has been a little boring as of late. We're in a format largely defined by some powerful combotastic interactions and undercosted Serra Angels.
Quick note: I do recall mentioning to some friends before the start of Round 1 that I wish I could have this RPTQ invite deferred because I was lamenting the thought of playing Standard in the moment.
During my late-night ventures in downtown Tampa, I decided I was feeling rather nostalgic and wanted to do what I could to relive the days of old where Ishkanah, Grafwidow; Liliana, the Last Hope; and Vessel of Nascency were cards that were on every other table in the feature match area!
My musings lead me to this beauty:
- 1 Noxious Gearhulk
- 3 Walking Ballista
- 2 Gnarlwood Dryad
- 4 Grim Flayer
- 2 Tireless Tracker
- 2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
- 2 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
I went into my deckbuilding process by just thinking of cards I like. While that sounds pretty silly, I do enjoy some decent Magic cards.
The past few months have been quite kind to me, as some of you might have noticed. I don't think there's been a more profitable card in the history of Magic for me than Grim Flayer. I don't know what it is about the card, but it does almost everything I want a two-drop creature to do. It finds lands, prevents flooding, and just hits super-hard relatively early.
While it's true that this variation of Delirium took a huge hit with the banning of Emrakul, the Promised End, the format is still susceptible to much of what the rest of the deck is designed to do. Ishkanah, Grafwidow is a powerhouse against Mardu and always has been. Even though Heart of Kiran can get that fifth toughness that Ishkanah, Grafwidow has a little more easily with the help of a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar emblem or a Walking Ballista ping, the time it buys can be more than enough to fight them with multiple recursive effects like Liliana, the Last Hope or Traverse the Ulvenwald for a second copy.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow has lost a lot of its luster with it being nearly useless against many if not all versions of the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo. It's not aggressive enough to pressure them and it doesn't defend against arbitrarily large numbers of Cats. Still, I went into the event expecting to play against Mardu more than any other deck in the field, and that's just what happened. After a curveball of a matchup Round 1 in Jeskai Control (no combo), I proceeded to play against not one, not two, not even three, but five consecutive Mardu Vehicles matchups, culminating in the penultimate round, being paired against former national champion Antonino De Rosa. I did manage to drop Round 2 to the deck, not knowing how to properly sideboard, seeing as I had only built the deck the night before.
Sideboarding is still the most difficult part of Magic for me and I don't claim to be anywhere close to mastering it. However, I learned quickly after my Round 2 loss to the Vehicles that what I had thought I should be doing was terribly, terribly wrong. Originally I had thought I wanted to match them on the curve with cards like Gnarlwood Dryad and Grim Flayer, removing some of the clunky cards in the deck such as Tireless Tracker and Gonti, Lord of Luxury. Shortly after being handed my first loss on the day by longtime Pro Tour player William Postlethwait, or Billy P as he's more commonly known, and a bunch of large Walking Ballistas, I realized I was sideboarding to fight the wrong fight. Their plan was to go much larger with cards like Archangel Avacyn and Ob Nixilis Reignited of their own, and that's something that I wasn't ready for.
One round later, I decided to change gears and give something else a try. So from this point onward, I sideboarded as such in the Mardu Vehicles matchup:
Tireless Tracker is a hell of a Magic card, folks. I'll be damned if I can think of a matchup I'll ever cut that card from my deck against again. In all seriousness, though, the Mardu plan is to become the control deck, which they aren't as good at doing as the Delirium decks are, if you think about it. Cards like Traverse the Ulvenwald and Liliana, the Last Hope are much better-suited to fighting a long game than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Thraben Inspector are. If their plan is to slow the game down and try to be the grindy midrange deck, then so be it!
I was happy to play that matchup five times during the Swiss rounds, only to be paired against the real boogeyman of the room in the Top 8 of the event, where we'd be playing one match to see who gets to the Pro Tour. It wouldn't be a Standard tournament without everyone's favorite dynamic and interactive duo, Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai! Having been unable to draw in the last round and having to win to make it in, I found myself atop of the standings, which certainly helped here, as being on the play can make all the difference.
Now, a brief explanation as to my deck design. After several events I've learned the power of this underrated instant. To the Slaughter was one of the best cards on my road to winning in Atlanta and Columbus and this was no exception. It's literally in the name of the card, “Slaughter,” and that's just what it was. I was able to turn Delirium on with a Vessel of Nascency and control the early parts of the game with Tireless Tracker left unanswered and some random removal thrown into the mix. When my opponent first attempted the combo, it was a bit late, and seeing as they only had Felidar Guardian as a creature and Saheeli Rai as a planeswalker…well, yeah, did I mention that To the Slaughter is pretty absurd?
It had been exactly three years and one day since I had last qualified for the Pro Tour, and man, does it still feel great! This is going to be the first time I'll be playing in a Pro Tour featuring Standard (I've played in two Modern Pro Tours and one Block Constructed) and I'm thrilled. I do feel I am strongest in Standard and I'm hoping to get to flex my creative muscles for this one, although I do believe the likelihood of me registering the card Grim Flayer is quite high!
For the final matchup against Four-Color Saheeli, I sideboarded as follows.
Although I didn't play against it at all, my sideboarding for most black and green variants would be something like this.
Of course, each of the decks I've played against has multiple variations, so this might not be the most accurate sideboard guide imaginable, but that's almost any matchup you face without decklists. Are they B/G Delirium or are they more energy-based? Is it Four-Color Saheeli with Aetherworks Marvel, or with Elder Deep-Fiend, or both?! Does this particular Mardu Vehicles deck sideboard into a more controlling deck or are they all-in on the beatdown plan? All of these questions can lead to different sideboarding plans being more correct than others. It's what makes sideboarding so incredibly difficult and skill-testing!
I am excited for the chance to play on the big stage once again and I'm glad that Liliana, the Last Hope and friends got me there. I would recommend this deck moving forward because I don't think people are nearly well-enough prepared to fight a more controlling B/G deck as they once might have been. Unfortunately, there are few major Standard events left before we get another set in the mix, and who knows what that will bring!
That all being said, we had a bomb dropped on us this past week.
This is more of a shock to me than the banning of Reflector Mage, in all honesty. Many people over the weekend were tweeting from the Grand Prix saying how glad they were that this would be the last time in Standard that they would have to deal with the Saheeli Rai combo.
Here's where people don't get it. While it might not be all over the top tables and it might not be taking down every tournament, the fact that it exists isn't what Standard is about. I work at a local game store here in Tampa and the turnouts for our Standard tournaments are at a record low, and when I ask people why they don't want to play, every single one of them just says it's not fun. Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian pushes out any kind of cute or less consistent combos that a card like Paradoxical Outcome or Paradox Engine could introduce. Not to mention it warps the sideboards and maindecks of every deck in the format because, if you're not able to interact, you're just going to lose.
It feels exactly like how Splinter Twin was only a couple of years ago. It wasn't winning every single event, but its presence led to a limited amount of decks that you could play.
And this isn't even Modern!
Sorry about that, just had to shout that one.
Why does this combo that never should have existed in the first place continuously plague us? Wizards has already admitted that they missed this interaction just a few short hours after the full card image gallery was released, and that is a terrifying thought. It means that their Future Future League, where they test formats they're designing to make sure it's balanced and nothing needs to be changed during development, has okayed a bevy of other cards without the knowledge of this combo existing. What that means is there could be cards to come that won't just potentially fight the combo, but possibly enhance it even further!
Let's be real here. Do we really want the format for next year (or however long Kaladesh is legal for) to always have the threat of a turn 4 kill? I'm baffled by this announcement and hope that, by the time the Pro Tour comes around, I won't have to be sitting across from arbitrarily large numbers of 1/4s.
There's endless data from multiple Grand Prix, RPTQs, and more that could have easily shown that the combo was too good for Standard and nothing good can come from its remaining legal.
“But Brennan! You just said you won your RPTQ playing an off-the-beaten-path version of Delirium and had to play against five copies of Mardu Vehicles on the way!”
Yes, that's true, but if we looked at the entirety of the metagame at the event I went to, it was pretty evenly split between Mardu and Saheeli combo, with five copies of the Four-Color Saheeli deck in the Top 8, one copy of Jeskai Saheeli, one Mardu Vehicles, and then me. A full six copies of the combo made it to the Top 8 of the RPTQ I attended.
That Rant Will Have to Do
That's going to be it for me, folks. In the meantime, place your bets on the likelihood of me registering the card Grim Flayer at the Pro Tour! I hope to do everyone proud there.