Missing the “Eternal on the Other Side of the Ocean” header? Yeah me too. It just happens to be much too long to comfortably get an actual article title behind it so I decided to go with “Eternal Europe” instead for now. If you have better suggestions I'm all ears!
Today I'll bring you something I usually don't talk about (Standard—I think I had a rather sweet/disgusting idea) and reveal a Legacy deck I foreshadowed last time—one that's based on the idea of playing four Ancestral Recalls. What the two have in common? An innocuous little common that helps ruin Standard at the moment: Squadron Hawk.
Before we get to that though I need to correct a mistake I made last time. I qualified the U/b/w Tempo-Counterbalance decks with a single Dreadnought as something completely new. On the contrary though the same kind of list was developed and played shortly after the power-level errata on Dreadnought was removed admittedly with minor differences due to card availability (Jace in particular didn't even exist back then). It had just fallen out of favor so completely that I had never heard about the archetype before or seen an example of it in action. Makes you wonder what other gems are waiting somewhere in the early history of the format only to be uncovered when the metagame is ripe for them. Thanks to Finn on mtgthesource.com for helping me realize this. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.
New Phyrexia is out and one of the things people seem most excited about is the ability to put Splinter Twin on a Deceiver Exarch and attack for a few billion damage. Every list for the deck I've seen so far either tries to force the combo into a Pyromancer Ascension shell or has the whole deck built around it. That's all well and good but aren't we missing something there? These decks are either one-dimensional and therefore easy to hate out or based on a skeleton that hasn't been good enough ever since M10 left the format.
I mean people are already figuring out how to deal with the combo should it become prevalent enough and I don't have any doubt that they'll find ways to keep it in check. The people in Wizards R&D aren't stupid; they may miss things but I strongly doubt they missed a combo that for all intents and purposes already existed (Pestermite).
One card that's getting a lot of press for exactly that purpose lately is Spellskite and it does the job admirably. It might even be good enough for people to run maindeck at least as long as there's targeted removal around. If you only have the combo to win with you're basically cold to the horrifying 0/4. Nice. Deck.
Sure answers to Spellskite are plentiful: artifact removal creature removal (not Condemn though) or a simple Jace bounce. The sweetest one was brought to my attention by our very own editor Steve Sadin himself—Twisted Image. It cantrips deals with the meddling spellstealer or Overgrown Battlement and randomly makes your opponents really regret putting Precursor Golem into their deck. If you want an answer to Spellskite you could do much worse.
The problem with running answers even cantripping answers is that they don't really help you get anywhere. Sure you now don't lose to Spellskite anymore but you first have to find the answer spend mana on doing something other than actually winning and you'll still have to deal with their Doom Blade or whatever. Once your deck is half answers why exactly are you trying to play a combo deck? It isn't like you get some sweet spell-based win and can now ignore all removal after all. Couldn't you just be a regular control deck and win with a Titan or some planeswalker?
So instead of trying to answer the hate how about doing this (list only to illustrate the idea; I haven't played a single game with it and I'm quite sure there are many ways to make it better—the concept seems really strong though):
The reaction I expect to get is something along the lines “you better stick to Legacy dude. You have no idea how Standard works...” and “man so lame take the best deck and drop the combo in—you call that innovation?” If you bear with me though maybe I can convince you that there is a method to the madness.
First think about Deceiver Exarch on his lonesome in Caw-Blade. In the mirror he seems awesome. He's big enough to stop a Sword-wielding Mystic and he always allows you to get the first Sword hit in if you both have drawn your Mystic. On the play you connect as normal but also get to make sure the opponent doesn't get to attack back; on the draw you get to tap his Mystic at the beginning of his combat then Mystic your own sword in on your turn to connect with an equipped Exarch. He provides valuable defense against Sword of War and Peace—remember what I said about being big enough to survive a hit?
Against Valakut you get to keep them off Titan mana for another turn (while conveniently again getting a body to equip your Sword). Against Mono Red you get a guy they can't just Bolt when you move to equip and that can also be used to gain you about four life (two by tapping a guy two by blocking one) and to draw out a burn spell as they usually won't want a 1/4 wall sticking around to continue blocking (saving you another two to three damage).
I hope this convinced some people that Exarch itself is actually valuable in a Caw-Blade shell quite the opposite of being the otherwise nearly dead combo piece it is for the pure Splinter-Exarch decks.
The Splinter Twins on the other hand aren't exactly great admittedly. They can be put to reasonable use though should you be Twin-flooded or just looking for some way to get ahead. Twinning a Squadron Hawk every turn with a Jace out soon gets ridiculous (assuming you were clever enough to keep at least one Hawk in hand) because you get to continuously chump block with the copy while having Jace cast true Ancestrals (foreshadowing). Sure having Jace out is already a huge edge but I've seen games lost after Jace stayed in play for four or five turns. Two turns of Twinning Hawks with Jace should be enough to totally run away with the game.
Twinning a Stoneforge Mystic provides similar ridiculousness combined with Jace (as long as there's an Equipment left in the deck) but is also pretty solid on its own. Twin the Mystic block with the token dump the new Equipment into play. If you don't need the defensive play you can either use your tokens to get around Tumble Magnet shoot them around with Mortarpod or just assemble a sick hoard of Equipment to bash your opponent with. This play is particularly interesting with Batterskull around. If you drop a turn three lifelinker your Mystic sits around twiddling his thumbs afterwards. Why not slam a Splinter Twin on it and dig up a Sword to hand to your Germ token?
Obviously none of these interactions alone makes Splinter Twin good enough; otherwise it would already be industry standard. It does mean though that the card will do you some good even if you don't combo-kill which is a plus.
Speaking of combo-killing the biggest benefit of having both pieces in the deck is obviously that you can Just Win ™. Here they are fighting to keep you from connecting with a Sword killing your Jaces on sight doing all those things they need to do so as to not lose to regular old Caw-Blade. Finally after some struggle they manage to stick a Jace get Koth ready to ultimate next turn or just resolve that Sun Titan they've prepared for the whole game. They've landed their trump and you're behind now. And then they die. End-of-turn Exarch Twin it GG.
The threat alone is also quite powerful. Can they really risk tapping out if you have an Exarch on the table? At the same time they can't really keep up with you if they have to represent countermagic or removal every single turn. An interesting dilemma to put the opponent in especially as you sometimes just win when they guess wrong.
Having another way to win fast is also pretty sweet against Valakut or aggressive decks. I mean you already have a number of blowout draws that they can't usually beat; now you also have the opportunity to just actually kill them on turn 4.
Putting random combos into decks not set up to use them is a bad plan sure. That's not what we're doing here though. Caw-Blade already has quite a lot of filtering to find the combo or to get rid of useless pieces and it has creatures that the opponent needs to deal with. What this boils down to is that Caw-Blade naturally protects the Exarch from removal and has easily enough raw power to win a fair game (i.e. one where you can't combo for whatever horrible reason). The combo just gives you something really unfair to do when the opponent is otherwise occupied. As a bonus half the combo is actually good in the deck. Seems like quite the recipe to me.
But that's just me some random Legacy player. What do I know?
Playing four (4) Ancestral Recalls
Last time when discussing Adam Barnello's deck I mentioned that he found the cut I couldn't to port Caw-Blade into Legacy by removing Squadron Hawk. Why didn't I find the cut? Because while trying to port the deck myself I had fallen in love with Squadron Hawk. Casting Hawk into Brainstorm is just the sweetest turning your cantrip into a full-blown Ancestral Recall. You even get the 1/1 body to (chump and) make up for the tempo you lost by spending two mana just to fill your hand.
One of the biggest things that has kept true control down is how many hoops you need to jump through only to draw a few extra cards for less than four mana. You either need to stop every Aether Vial get a stable board position and run a bunch of manlands or stuff your deck full of lands that do something. Predict actually comes close what with Sensei's Divining Top already being really good and all but the amount of mana you spend on drawing cards will usually force you to wait until the board is at least somewhat stable before you profit. All Squadron Hawk needs you to do is have room for its brethren and you're set up with a speed bump for the opposing Wild Nacatl/Tarmogoyf/whatever included. The problem? Until you find a Brainstorm you just drew three 1/1s for two. Worst. Ancestral. Ever.
The common solution is to simply make these 1/1s good by handing them some kind of magic sword or pointy stick or something giving you Caw-Blade. The more I played with different variations of the Caw-Blade theme though the more I felt like Stoneforge Mystic just wasn't all that good. Sure it resolved got some Sword and was promptly offed half the time I tried to equip it (note that I didn't have Thopter Foundries). Even if I then had the Hawk to follow up with I had usually lost so much tempo that I couldn't get back into the game at all. Put simply getting a Sword online on turn four at the cost of your second and third turn was a lot less thrilling than it seemed when watching
Caw-Blade Standard coverage. I mean even Goblins and Fish just beat the Equipment half the time by putting too much pressure on me.
The games I won were those in which I either stymied the opponent's every early effort only to connect with a Sword dropped a Moat or managed to pull off the Hawkcestral into a ton of interactive spells. What I realized was that in the first two cases there wasn't really any need to hit them with a Sword; any solid bomb would do as there wasn't much going on on the other side anyway. In the same vein which bomb I resolved after drawing three was often irrelevant and just happened to be a Sword on a board that I already controlled. You know what card is a great bomb to drop on a clean board? If you said Jace the Mind Sculptor* congrats you've understood the way I like to play Magic.
*Not that I didn't have Jaces in the deck already. I didn't start with the full set though.
Jace was everything I wanted. A devastating bomb to drop on an empty board a way to end the game an additional outlet for Squadron Hawk and another card that diverted damage from my head towards something on the board.
So the new plan became to use early disruption and card advantage to stall the board long enough to drop a Jace (or against certain decks a Moat) and ride that to victory. What was missing was a way to ensure that I'd be able to find all the pieces early and often enough to matter.
Another Weird Deck
Allow me a seemingly unrelated aside here: Do you understand why ANT and High Tide are so good? The real heart of these decks? No “they kill you real fast duh!” isn't the right answer.
In short: cantrips. In my last piece for the SCG Talent Search I exuded the virtues of the mass cantrip engine which I lovingly dubbed the cantrip cartel. Brainstorm-Ponder-Preordain provides unparalleled deck velocity and card selection at the cost of a lot of deck space. It also makes it really easy to find the cards you want. See where this is going?
Once I realized that the cantrip cartel would provide me with exactly the ability to find my minor combos as well as the answers I needed I decided to rebuild the deck from the ground up instead of tweaking from a Caw-Blade control shell. This is what I'm at right now:
Seems like I have a knack for finding decks that look really weird on paper right? Before I go over the theory behind the deck two short comments. First these are my typical 61 cards to squeeze in an extra land (either the Karakas or the eighth blue fetch) though the deck should be fine with 19 mana sources. I just like having that extra land.
The sideboard is still a work in progress but has been serviceable so far. There are many different approaches I still want to try out so play around with it; you're likely to find a better configuration. The one thing that has been a blowout is Back to Basics. So many games just become utterly one-sided once it hits; it isn't even funny.
Using Combo to Build Control
When I decided to use the Cantrip Cartel as the fundamental engine of the deck I abandoned its control origins and instead went with the closest equivalent among the combo decks: High Tide. You run on the same basic requirements which means you want a very basic-heavy mana base and High Tide gets away with ten cantrips and eighteen land while really relying on having four lands by turn four. As such this deck should be able to do the same. As you're slightly more vulnerable to Wasteland because you run two colors an additional land seemed like a good idea.
The result is a deck that plays like a cantrip combo deck but uses the engine to establish control instead of spending a lot of space just to win on the spot. You have the same ability to find the cards you want but instead of having engine pieces you have more interactive cards. Your combo becomes trading for every early play the opponent makes (conveniently making room in your hand for Hawks) than refueling with Hawk plus Brainstorm or dropping the equivalent of a one-card combo once you hit four mana—Jace against most decks and Moat against some.
At that point you'll draw ahead in card advantage in a major way which will in turn allow you to buy the time to do it again (the first Hawkcestral helps find more Brainstorms too). At some point you end up so far ahead of your opponent that Jace-ultimating or just beating down with Hawks and Cliques becomes a very reasonable way to win.
That's what the whole deck is built around: trade early and often refuel and continue these shenanigans while drawing ahead. The Cliques are a nod to the fact that your main goal is to resolve a bomb on four something a three-mana Duress with flash that can block enables quite nicely. I'm still looking for room to get the third Clique in there by the way.
Against combo you have as powerful a search engine as they do (something no other control deck can claim) but more than twice the disruption. If you've played combo-on-combo before you know what that means.
Against other control decks you have the same overwhelming card-quality engine the combo decks bring to bear but you're also able to efficiently produce actual card advantage and have a much better disruption engine to keep them from locking you out in some way.
Finally against aggro you have extremely efficient ways to slow them down and four-drops that will often just win similar to what a combo would do. Sure you have fewer ways to recover from an overwhelming board position (you can't just kill them) but a much better ability to keep the board from getting out of control in the first place.
Some more specific comments:
Don't blow your Brainstorms: This should be rather obvious but in this deck you really want to maximize your Brainstorms even more so than everywhere else. If you don't get the full two cards out of it you better be in a really difficult situation. With the possible payoff you get for not playing it Brainstorm pre-Hawk is almost always just wrong. Sure sometimes you need that land or Force of Will but burning Brainstorms just to see a few more cards hasn't ever been as much of a waste as it is here.
Why Squadron Hawk over Dark Confidant: It doesn't need to stay in play. No seriously that one is huge. Legacy has a solid amount of removal and having to fight over your draw engine when it hasn't even done anything yet is a major drain on resources. Just filling your hand is pretty good and if you can actually follow up with a Brainstorm it's pretty sick. Drawing three cards at once is much stronger than drawing them over the course of three turns. The strength of burst card advantage becomes quite visible when you compare how backbreaking a resolved Ancestral is compared to little Jace activating three times.
No Sensei's Divining Top? I tried Tops I swear. The problem is that they are as slow as molasses. They need two mana to do anything while you want to be spending as much mana as possible on interacting every turn. In addition the card you invest by playing SDT is often sorely missing in the early game. Sure you could flip Top but at that point you're wasting even more mana. Most importantly the cantrips just dig deeper in the same amount of time. You're usually looking for something be it more interactive cards a bomb mana or the missing piece of your card-advantage engine. Finding one of these a turn earlier or without needing a fetch makes a huge difference. I tried Tops; I wanted them to be good but the increased strength later on just doesn't make up for what they cost you early on. The deck draws so many cards that you're usually looking pretty good in the late game anyway.
Counterbalance: Yeah being locked under CounterTop sucks. You're nearly as cold to the assembled combo as most true combo decks though you generally still get to drop Jace who can hopefully pull you out of it. Oblivion Ring is your friend here. As opposed to combo though all that countermagic makes you really good at keeping the lock from hitting in the first place.
Mental Misstep and other countermagic: You have to change your attitude on how to play countermagic in this deck compared to other control decks. During the early game you really don't care what you counter; you just want to trade and slow the opponent down. This makes this a pretty ideal Misstep deck as the common flaw people point out about Misstep is that it doesn't hit much against those decks where you want to spend the counter. Here you don't really care as you plan to trade for everything they do anyway and Misstep does that just fine.
Last Hawk Down
Two formats two decks built around Squadron Hawk. I assume it's obvious by now that I don't think Squadron Hawk will see any less play; actually I think it will see significantly more when counting its use over multiple formats. It sure seems like drawing three cards any three cards is pretty good in this game. I know I'll be rocking it in Legacy for the foreseeable future as Brainstorm is already the best card in the format and Hawk just makes it utterly absurd (and going off with NBS is really a chore).
That being said I'm far from convinced that I've found the best way to abuse the interaction between the Cantrip Cartel and Squadron Hawk but so far the deck seems to work quite nicely. I've even killed people with creature damage in a tournament setting for the first time in more than a year (outside of Limited)—that has to mean something right?
Hit the forums and let me know what you think about today's excursion into a format I usually don't deal with and make sure to give the Caw Cartel a try—if nothing else drawing a million cards a game is a lot of fun. I end about half my games with less than twenty cards left in my library when my opponents are still at over thirty (before I hit them with a Jace ultimate obviously). Pretty neat. Until next time—slow-roll your Brainstorms!