[Apologies to Adrian for the delay on this. It was supposed to go up over a week ago but fell through some internet cracks caused by craziness in London. - Knut]
It's been a while since I've written for Star City and I'm glad to be writing here again. I've had an open invitation to give Ted and co. articles but I just haven't been able to get to it until just recently.* My return article is going to be about the results of the last major tournament that hit the newsstands recently. Many of the things that happened were small but I do think that the last thing I mention in this article is something truly staggering.
For the last several years of all of the things that happen at the U.S. and Canadian Regionals every year the small innovations are probably the most important. There are plenty of events that impact Standard every year but I don't believe there is any other weekend when there are simply so many people that are working competitively on a format. Certainly people work hard at their respective Regionals everywhere. Even if North America has fallen so far in Constructed and has been so much on the ropes in Magic that the idea of a need for "taking back Sunday" is printed on T-shirts there is something to be said for the sheer mass of people all throwing themselves at a format at once.
Something is bound to stick to it.
Generally anytime a new set pops into existence there is precious little that actually manages to leave a mark. The problem is not that there aren't necessarily good cards to be exploited. The problem is exploration. In a lot of ways deck building isn't so much purely science or art; it is a bit of both with a dash of economics thrown in.
When we think of a promising lead to explore there's no telling where it will end up. Lewis and Clark spent a long time seeking out a Northwest Passage through North America and they didn't know that one didn't exist. Some of our work on decks is just like that - we have an idea that simply doesn't work or can't work. Even if we have an idea that could completely pan out we have a limited amount of time to get it fully explored sometimes only until the end of a season or sometimes (in the case of Regionals) only one real shot. This is where the economics comes in - when you are limited in the amount of time that you can actually expend in the pursuit of perfecting a deck you're still going to have to fit against a slew of decks that are already completely honed.
Regardless of skill Magic still includes a hefty amount of luck. This is a good thing. One of the strengths of selecting a more mainstream deck is that you can walk into a tournament and have all of your efforts expended on getting to know that deck so intimately that there is nothing in the mainstream you don't know how to respond to. This might not mean that you will be able to win but it does mean that you will be able to understand what kinds of things you need to do to give yourself an opportunity to win. Working on a new deck in limited time often makes this kind of intimacy much harder to achieve.
Back in the day it seemed as though Wizards was a lot less skittish about making powerful new cards. When Exodus became legal just before U.S. Nationals it was a different era. I still remember a young Texan playing the first Recurring Nightmare/Survival of the Fittest deck trying to earn an invitation to Nationals through the Meatgrinders. He was taken down by my friend Jim Hustad playing the first Counter-Oath of Druids deck that I had designed with my think tank Cabal Rogue. I don't remember if that Rec/Sur deck (piloted by now poker great David Williams) qualified or not but the cards allowed for that kind of innovation. Think of the power of cards like Survival of the Fittest Recurring Nightmare and Oath of Druids. Set design wasn't built around an "x-matters" paradigm back then. Sets seemed to be built with a few mechanics and integrating interesting cards into those same sets. There was no "the White Shadow deck" or "the Blue/Red buyback deck".
Generally then you'll see very few Actually-Truly new pure decks. Compare the power of one of the most potent cards from Saviors of Kamigawa Kagemaro First to Suffer to the powerful cards of the old-school. Yes Kagemaro is powerful but he isn't "build a deck around me" powerful. So what we have now is innovation - the little choices that help you out in the matchups that are all already out there.
Alex Buckner - 1st Place Phoenix AZ
4 Zo-Zu the Punisher
2 Kumano Master Yamabushi
3 Slith Firewalker
4 Hearth Kami
4 Stone Rain
4 Molten Rain
3 Chrome Mox
4 Magma Jet
3 Seething Song
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
1 Shinka the Bloodsoaked Keep
This was the first decklist I looked at as I was reading the coverage of Regionals. I immediately noticed the name after this one (Adam Prosak playing Tooth and Nail) but being a little bit methodical I started out examining the decks in the order that they were presented. Now I'm not sure if the results from each of the Regionals are simply presented in seed order from the Swiss or not. It's certainly possible that some of these decklists that are listed as "1st" place may have lost in the elimination round.
In Alex's deck there is the obvious main deck innovation that is echoed in tons and tons of Red lists the single copy of Shinka the Bloodsoaked Keep. This isn't a very big deal but it is a good choice in a deck with some Legends. For Regionals I played a deck that was quite similar to this one but I know I manage to beat Troll Ascetic with Umezawa's Jitte equipped on it more than once simply because I had a Zo-Zu and a Shinka.
A far bigger deal from out of Saviors of Kamigawa is Pithing Needle. Sure Pithing Needle isn't some kind of powerhouse card like Living Death but it still fundamentally can disrupt almost every deck out there. I remember a conversation with my friend Sam Black. Sam was going to play an updated version of Mike Hron's "I Bring Gifts" Five-Color Gifts Ungiven deck.
"This matchup is really bad for you. I can stall until I get out a COP. How are you planning on beating COP: Red? Thoughts of Ruin? That won't work in your deck."
"Oh." He sat there a while thinking. "Hmm. Well I guess I have to hope I don't play against Pithing Needle..."
If it does nothing else Pithing Needle is an amazing answer that Red and Black can use against COPs. It also hits other important cards. Think Aether Vial Sensei's Divining Top and Oblivion Stone just as examples - if nothing else the card is a Disenchant for decks that don't have access to that kind of effect. It even manages to be a bigger deal than that however as it can also hinder effects like an opposing Hearth Kami or a Troll Ascetic's regeneration. Some people have compared this to Damping Matrix but the fact that it can hit enchantments and also leave your own cards' abilities unhindered is pretty huge.
Pithing Needle isn't an overwhelmingly overpowered effect but it is important to take note of the card. The flexibility of Pithing Needle makes it move from being simply a powerful answer to spoilers into being a truly disruptive card. Unlike a Shatter or Naturalize this card will rarely sit dead. Almost always it can be used like a colorless Meddling Mage. This is a natural fit into a deck like the various different Red decks out there which can often be shut down by a simple spoiler.
I noticed another interesting idea in Tylon Blas's version of Flores Red.
Tylon Blas Phoenix AZ
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
Tylon's replacement of Damping Matrix to replace the Sensei's Divining Top is fair but unexciting. While I do like the Damping Matrix quite a bit (especially in a world full of Tops and other activated abilities) I think that the Top serves a big purpose in the deck: building the "you're dead" burn combo. Losing the Top makes the other minor change to the deck the replacement of Wayfarer's Bauble with another mana source much less of a big deal. Personally I've always felt that the Bauble's were a bit of overkill and I definitely prefer either a Talisman (for both the immediate recoup of mana and the potential to hurt yourself to help out your Pulses) or the Guardian Idol as a simple damage source.
The idea that is of most interest to me in this deck is Hidetsugu's Second Rite.
I wasn't entirely certain if Hidetsugu's Second Rite belonged in my own sideboard and I'm not entirely sure that it belongs in Tylon Blas's main deck or not but the card's inclusion in a Top 4 list is very noteworthy. The implications of "10 life = death" can be pretty huge. For such a miniscule mana investment your ability to threaten any deck that can just win (take Tooth and Nail) and simply kill it out of nowhere is a big deal. Not enough players are running City of Brass to be able to easily affect this kind of card. In play testing I can tell you you don't weep if your opponent knocks themselves to 6 life with their own Pulse of the Forge to stop themselves from dying and you aren't crying when your opponent wastes their mana to burn themselves and get below 10 life. 9 life just means that a Pulse and a Shrapnel Blast or Beacon will be a kill.
The Chicago Regionals (held in Niles) has traditionally been a home for Red decks but it was Shawn Iden's take on Rats that was the most interesting to me.
Shawn Iden 3rd Place Niles IL
3 Ink-Eyes Servant of Oni
4 Ravenous Rats
4 Nezumi Shortfang
4 Hand of Cruelty
4 Chittering Rats
3 Skull Collector
4 Aether Vial
3 Umezawa's Jitte
1 Shizo Death's Storehouse
2 Tomb of Umrai
This deck takes Rats! and turns it into something respectable. The problem I had had with every moment I played with or against the various different Rat decks out there was the complete lack of pressure that the deck could pull off or the ease in which a deck could recover from the hefty disruption a Rat deck could produce. Throatslitter could swing the game at times but it could be awfully hard to get through without losing some other useful critters in the meantime. Disruption is great but without getting a hard lock going disruption really requires a bit of beats to go with it so you can best take advantage of it.
Shawn's deck does just that.
He lowers the curve immensely here throwing in several two-mana spells. First of all is the actual beatdown creature Hand of Cruelty. Being pro-White isn't all that big of a deal. The big deal is a 2/2 with Bushido for 2 mana. When Hand of Cruelty gets into a fight it can expect to win it for the majority of the beginning stages of the game. In addition it actually allows the deck potential beatdown draws. Imagine a simple one-two punch of turn 1 Aether Vial turn 2 Hand of Cruelty. On your third turn being able to actually drop a Chittering Rat or a Skull Collector and drop a Ravenous Rat Nezumi Shortfang or really put on the beats with another Hand.
The three Terrors fit into this plan well. In a format where they will hardly ever be dead Terror is a great elim spell. Sundering Titan Blinkmoth Nexus and opposing Black decks are about the only things out there that make this card fundamentally different than Terminate. Where the previous builds of Rat decks couldn't expect to have any kind of heavy momentum going here we have a deck that can actually really punish the opponent pretty severely with an Ink-Eyes. And here we have a deck that can take a Tomb of Urami and really make it shine.
Tomb of Urami is being fit into a few Black Control decks but they really don't have much of a place in such a deck. Taking that single point of damage from simply tapping the land occasionally for mana is an actual cost and the off chance of setting off the Tomb isn't something to be counted on. Here though they shine. This deck can have a pretty decent table presence and plopping a 5/5 flier into play at the end of the turn can make it lights out for a number of people. The cheap curve and the Vial really keeps the cost of losing all of your lands in control and the fact that this deck runs two copies of the Legendary land gives you an idea of how often it expects to be able to get some mileage out of actually activating it.
Whether it was Shawn or some other player that honed this deck to what it is I think that they have a lot to be proud of.
Moving onto one final archetype Blue-Tron there are a few things I'd like to look at. The Blue Urzatron deck is pretty interesting. Here is a deck that can actually fully make use of a lot of cards that a Blue deck wants to make use of but generally struggles in trying to. Thirst for Knowledge has been a card that is often fit into many versions of Mono-Blue usually to a pretty weak effect (regardless beggars can't be choosers). Primarily an Artifact deck the Blue-Tron decks can actually get the full power of Thirst. Oblivion Stone is another such spell - the typical Blue deck would love to have a Nevinyrral's Disk but it really has problems actually casting and using an Oblivion Stone. The Urzatron makes getting the mana easy. Take the simple idea of a Clockwork Dragon. The turn following it hitting the table can often make it a huge threat. It isn't at all unreasonable to have it kill your opponent in two attacks.
One of the things that appeared in several lists of Blue-Tron is Shifting Borders. This is a pretty clever idea in a Tooth and Nail world. Exchanging an Island for a piece of the Tron can be a potentially huge mana shift (easily making potential changes of six mana in favor of the Shifting Borders player if not more). With a bit of luck you might even be able to make the truly cruel exchange: activate an Oboro to return it and respond by exchanging it for an Urza-piece. A rough beat indeed.
It's a great plan. But there is a better plan against Tooth and Nail so good in fact that I think it might be the most impressive innovation of Regionals. Take a gander at Brent Peterson's list out of Santa Clara California.
Brent Peterson 1st Place Santa Clara CA
1 Arcbound Reclaimer
2 Solemn Simulacrum
2 Oblivion Stone
4 Serum Visions
4 Mana Leak
1 Skeleton Shard
4 Thirst for Knowledge
2 Echoing Truth
3 Sensei's Divining Top
1 Staff of Domination
1 Culling Scales
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower
1 Minamo School at Water's Edge
1 Oboro Palace in the Clouds
The main deck is pretty traditional keeping the Skeleton Shard/Arcbound Reclaimer package that many people seem to have discarded for this event. The thing that makes this deck shine is its anti-Tooth and Nail package. In a format that is likely to include a veritable ton of Tooth and Nail this deck takes the word "trump" bold-faces it capitalizes it and ups the font on it about 24 points.
After side boarding in Twincast Uyo and the pair of Vampires any time an opponent casts Tooth and Nail they will generally lose the game. The action flows something like this:
- Twincast the Tooth and Nail (find and play Uyo and a Triskelion)
- Use Uyo to copy the Tooth and Nail (find and play two Mephidross Vampire)
- Continue to copy Tooth and Nail (getting whatever) as many times as seems rational
Even assuming the worst case scenario (a completely clear board previous to the Tooth and Nail) a simple double copy of Tooth and Nail will net you the ability to dome your opponent's head immediately for 14 (4 extra damage from Uyo 3 from one Vampire 4 from the second and 3 from the Trike itself). Toss in another copy (getting a Memnarch and a Trike) gets you another 9.
The best thing about this plan is that it is a reasonable response to a whole ton of side boarding options from Tooth and Nail. Plow Under and Reap and Sow are also great targets for a Twincast and there will be the occasional blowout where the Tooth and Nail player will try to Plow Under to gain the advantage only to have the Plow Under Twincast twice. In a matchup that can often be a literal mana-race this can be devastating.
This leaves Tooth and Nail with only two good options in this matchup neither of which is particularly exciting. Cranial Extraction can be used to get rid of the Twincast problem but is likely to be met with Twincast hitting Tooth and Nail on the copy back. Not so exciting. The other choice is to go switcheroo a la Terry Soh.
This is a pretty weak option. You are still fighting against countermagic and Boseiju isn't particularly good at helping out creature spells. Ultimately Trolls Trees and Slug may be the Tooth and Nail player's only option but it isn't looking good.
This is a shocking 7 slots of the board but it does leave it enough weapons for most of the rest of the matchups. Twincast can still be good against random opponents like Mono-Black control (Twincasting a Distress Extraction or Persecute can be fine). Sun Droplet is a great way to cause various Red decks' plans to go awry. Hibernation is a fantastic weapon against Green and Echoing Truth is a great way to put a damper on any plan involving permanents though it is especially powerful against Beacon of Creation.
Sure there were a couple of brand-spanking new decks out there (check out Brian Chu from Burnaby for one such example) but this build of Blue-Tron has such a devastating Sideboard plan for Tooth and Nail I think you might want to call out "metagame shift". Blue-Tron is certainly not an invincible deck by any means (it has a pretty big weakness to Sowing Salt) but it does demand a bit of respect to begin with. Thanks to the innovations of Brent Peterson and everyone else that may have worked on the deck I think Blue-Tron may have graduated to the big leagues.
- Adrian Sullivan
* Awhile back my laptop was stolen and then my desktop died and then my dog got hit by a car and somebody burnt my house down and then I was kidnapped by pirates and my fiance ran off with a supermodel and I was stilling trying to go to PTQs and write articles over at Magicthegathering.com and for Inquest. Well I finally managed to get a laptop back to help ease my burden and so I expect to be back writing quite regularly for Star City. And oh yeah only a couple of the stuff I talked about up there actually happened.