I'm coming off a lackluster year of Magic performances. I missed Platinum for the first time in four years, and the decks I've played at the last few Pro Tours haven't done well. I've been playing a little less Magic this last year than I used to. It's hard to know how much that matters, but it's likely enough. I've been excited to start playing more and trying my hardest just because I enjoy playing on Arena a lot more than I've enjoyed playing on Magic Online, and I'm really hoping to get some results to show for it.
It's been a long time since I've played my own deck, and this week, when I found something I felt was promising, I really wanted to see what I could do by just trusting myself. I played around with my deck for a while and tried some of the better-looking decks from the PT, like Pascal Vieren's Izzet Drakes and Matt Nass's Golgari Midrange, and I was winning more with my deck. Just for fun, I decided to try playing my deck without discussing it with anyone. Not necessarily the best recipe for success, but that wasn't my only goal. In my experience, people generally don't have a lot of advice for decks that are this different than what they've played and I wasn't confident enough to recommend it to anyone else.
Testing by myself on Arena, my sample sizes are all pretty small. On Saturday, a few people asked how my matchup was against a certain deck and I really didn't know. I knew what my deck's plan was against everyone, that I had a chance, and how I needed the game to go, but I didn't really know precisely how often it would play out that way. This is everything I need to know to play the tournament, but not what you need to know to decide whether to play the deck, but that's okay because I knew I wanted to play it.
Okay, so let's get to what I played, how I got there, and how it works:
This deck was inspired by Ben Weitz's deck from #PTGRN:
- 4 Dire Fleet Daredevil
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 2 Goblin Cratermaker
- 3 Legion Warboss
- 4 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Siege-Gang Commander
I liked the idea of using Treasure Map and Siege-Gang Commander with Arch of Orazca and a bunch of removal and adding in Banefires to beat control decks. I don't like Goblin Cratermaker or Legion Warboss, and I think Goblin Chainwhirler and Rekindling Phoenix weren't especially well positioned, as I think there aren't a lot of x/1s and everyone has a lot of ways to exile creatures.
I felt like it would be easy to splash in this deck, which has a high land count and a lot of treasures and scrying if I was willing to forego Goblin Chainwhirler, which of course, I was happy to do, as I didn't think it was particularly well-positioned anyway.
I like History of Benalia more than the red threats because I like that it plays well with Siege-Gang Commander at largely invalidating spot removal, which I expected a lot of--especially Shock and Lava Coil, as I expected Izzet Drakes to be very popular.
Defeaning Clarion seemed like the best way to make sure that I would beat both the white-based Boros Aggro decks and the red aggressive decks that people might play to trump the white deck.
Adanto Vanguard is critical to this deck's strategy, as you definitely have a bad matchup against control in game 1 - though you can steal it with Banefire, especially in conjunction with Azor's Gateway - but every card that control decks play to answer Adanto Vanguard is horrible against the rest of this deck. Seal Away is answering a two-power creature that I spent less than a card on and is extremely risky to use on Siege-Gang Commander since I can destroy it, and Settle the Wreckage is very dangerous to use against me because my deck is extremely good at utilizing any amount of extra mana. This means it's very hard for control decks to answer an Adanto Vanguard that comes down on turn 2, which makes it extremely easy for me to end the game with a moderately-sized Banefire.
One problem with this plan is that it's not terribly effective against black control decks, but I didn't expect those to be as popular as Izzet and Jeskai, and at least they might have more trouble with cards like Ixalan's Binding (spoiler: I lost to Grixis).
The best way to explain the rest of the cards that I chose is probably just to go over each of the matchups I expected and my plans against them, so let's get to that:
VS Jeskai Control
I guess I should start with Jeskai, since I've already touched on it. As I mentioned, in game 1 I'm primarily leaning on Banefire, but I have to play a game to get there. I'm really hoping to start with either two-mana artifact, and I'm never in a hurry to cast my spells if my opponent has three untapped mana - if they have four, I want to cast something so they can't Chemister's Insight if they want to counter my spell. In general, I must be content to play a long game because I can't realistically end the game quickly, and my card advantage is powerful but slow. The other thing I'm looking to do is leverage my mana advantage - hit more land drops and make more treasures. Use the threat of Treasure Cove and Arch of Orazca to force them to act before casting spells that matter rather than running my high impact cards into their counterspells.
The game is really all about patience. Don't overextend, bide your time, get a lot of mana, and ideally stick some card advantage engines and contain their threats, then grind them out or win with Banefire. The more Expansions they're playing, the harder this will be - in general, their proactive cards are a lot more problematic than their reactive cards.
This isn't exact, as you might want to vary things depending on how many Drakes, artifacts, and enchantments you expect them to have. Lava Coil is a questionable card, but I think you want it if you see any Drakes in the first game and I think it's generally safe to have the two Invoke the Divines after sideboard as well. Pirate's Pillage is awkward because it's horrible if it gets countered, but resolving it can be great so I'm happy to cut it if I can, but I'd rather have it than a removal spell that isn't likely to work.
If you wanted to improve the matchup, shifting four-mana spells to more Karn, Scion of Urza and fewer Pirate's Pillages is probably better, but the biggest improvements you could make would be playing more Azor's Gateways and Banefires in the maindeck or sideboard. Additional Ixalan's Bindings would also be welcome. There's actually an argument for siding into four each of Azor's Gateway and Banefire, replacing the Adanto Vanguards, but I think that plan would be worse against Izzet Drakes, where you also use the Adanto Vanguards.
Game 2 is very similar to game 1, except that you have ten great cards to play on turn 2 instead of six, so you really want to mulligan for one of them. Adanto Vanguard can sometimes steal games.
VS Golgari Midrange
Given that you're largely trying to play control even against Jeskai, where your inevitability is fairly questionable, it's safe to assume you're almost always going to be playing the control role and Golgari certainly isn't an exception. Deafening Clarion and History of Benalia are just looking to trade with around two of their early threats, and you're basically just trying to stay alive to cast Cleansing Nova or Star of Extinction. Banefire and Siege-Gang Commander are primarily tasked with controlling their planeswalkers. Never go out of your way to transform Azor's Gateway as it's too likely they'll destroy it first; just use it to get rid of cards you don't want. Pay attention to when you need to activate Treasure Map on turns 3, 4, and 5 so that you can Star of Extinction on turn 5 (which can be worth it even though it costs all your Treasure).
They're built to grind, but a lot of their grinding comes from exploring, which encourages them to overextend. Your card advantage is more reliable (especially Arch of Orazca), and your sweepers can generally answer several of their cards.
In general, you can afford to go to a very low life total here, as they don't really have reach.
You can't realistically cut all your artifacts and enchantments, but you can try to minimize your exposure to their planeswalkers that can destroy them, and Azor's Gateway isn't important to your plan anyway. The games are much harder after sideboarding because Duress is so good against you because so much of your game is about setting up for a big sweeper. I beat Golgari once in Milwaukee but then lost to another Golgari player who had a lot of Midnight Reapers in addition to Duress, which was extremely good against my gameplan.
If you wanted to improve your Golgari match (with this or basically any other red deck), the best cards you could add are more Star of Extinctions and more Pirate's Pillages. Pirate's Pillage really impresses in this matchup, and I think it might even be a card Jeskai could consider sideboarding to improve their Golgari Matchup.
VS Izzet Drakes
As always, you're just treating them as an aggro deck in game one. They don't have counters or sweepers so your threats are all pretty good. You should cast them as soon as you can and then kill as many of their creatures as you can while attacking them. In some ways, this is the matchup where you're most aggressive, just because you can't really block and they can't answer your threats well, so you're kind of racing.
You should improve a lot after sideboarding, as the cards you're cutting are absolutely terrible, and the cards you're bringing in are great.
You might want another Lyra depending on how you think they're sideboarding. Even though Beacon Bolt is very bad against your creatures, I'd kind of expect them to have it in so I'm not excited about it, but all the cards you're cutting are worse. If you wanted to improve the matchup, more Ixalan's Bindings would be the best cards you could add, followed by Lava Coil, which is better than Seal Away because you can play it as soon as they tap out and you can play it if they're trying to block. This is a lot more important than being able to answer a haste creature, especially since the deck is generally moving away from Maximize Velocity.
VS Boros Aggro
This is a very good matchup. Siege-Gang Commander is fantastic against them as are all your sweepers. Your card advantage stuff is slow, so you can lose by drawing the wrong part of your deck, especially if you don't know what you're playing against. Adanto Vanguard is their scariest card, because sometimes you just lose to it because you're playing red removal. Therefore, I have Seal Away instead of only Lava Coil. I also have Settle the Wreckage and Siege-Gang Commander, which is the actual best way to deal with it. You're really just trying not to die in game 1 (in case that isn't obvious).
It feels pretty rude to improve your deck this much in sideboarding against them. Invoke the Divine is secretly one of the best cards against most builds of Boros Aggro after sideboarding, since answering Conclave Tribunal and Experimental Frenzy is so important, and hitting History of Benalia isn't bad. There are serious diminishing returns and it's possible the third copy would improve your matchup, but I don't think that's necessary and wouldn't recommend it. Closing the game is important so that they don't randomly Banefire you. Lyra's good and it's possible the best card you could add to your sideboard for the matchup is the fourth Siege-Gang Commander.
VS Mono-Red Aggro
This is scarier than the white matchup because you don't always end the game quickly and they can burn you out. Consider trying to save Deafening Clarion to use the lifelink mode to get out of range if you can stabilize early with other cards, even if you must use more cards to do it. Because your lifegain is limited and they have reach, you really want to do everything you can to preserve your life total and then end the game fast.
Sideboarding here is very similar to against Boros Aggro - Invoke the Divine is great. They probably have Experimental Frenzy, and there's a small chance they have Treasure Map, but honestly, it's pretty nice to have it just in case you need to destroy your own thing to gain four life.
This matchup is a little close but favorable. If you wanted to improve it, oddly enough, I'm pretty sure the best card you could add would be Healing Grace followed by Fountain of Renewal - your lategame is already great, and these cards are better than Lyra because it's possible for the red deck to kill you before you get to attack with Lyra. Both Healing Grace and Fountain of Renewal make it very easy to win by answering their creatures and keeping a high life total. Fountain of Renewal is better than Healing Grace if your draw it in your opening hand, but I think the fact that this deck sees so many cards means the card that's a better topdeck is probably better. Healing Grace is twice as much life as Revitalize for one less mana, and drawing a card really isn't what you need in this matchup.
VS Mono-Blue Aggro
This deck isn't that popular, so I haven't played it much (I'm not technically sure if I've ever played it, to be honest). They're an aggro deck, you're trying not to die, etc.
You're bringing in almost your entire sideboard here. You're cutting all your most expensive and slow spells. Racing with Adanto Vanguard and History of Benalia is a good plan. Do everything you can to kill their creatures that matter, and try not to get too destroyed by their counterspells.
I believe those are the most common matchups. In general, the tricky decisions you're going to face are mostly about how to prioritize using your mana for your artifacts versus playing your spells. In general, playing off curve to activate Treasure Map is worth it, but wasting an entire turn to do it generally isn't (though things get weird against counterspells).
The deck is a blast to play if you like grindy games where you eventually win in spectacular fashion after building a battlefield that lets you draw three cards a turn or so. It has a lot of play to it and just enough pressure to randomly juke aggro and steal games while generally trying to grind.