Two weeks ago, I presented four Standard decks and asked the readership to pick one for me to focus on for today's article. The consensus was definitely that the U/W/b Crovax Control deck was the best, so I got right on that as soon as GP: Columbus was over.
As it turned out, two significant events had taken place in the intervening two weeks. One, Mike Flores posted his eighteen-thousand-copies-of-Detritivore deck (“Go-sis”), and two, Sean McKeown spotlighted a powerful Bridge from Below list.
Having tested against it, I think Bridge is so powerful, it will be played at Regionals, no matter what. Go-sis makes my Decks to Beat list even though I've never seen it in action because of the Flores Factor: if Mike gets behind a deck, it will be played at Regionals, no matter what. My Decks to Beat now include Dragonstorm, Gruul, Dralnu (The Big Three – I predict these will be the most popular), along with the less-popular (as I predict) Angelfire, NarcoBridge, and Go-sis.
It's a good idea to work out how your matchups look on paper before testing, as it gives you clues as to how your maindeck should be configured. If it looks like Crovax has no chance against Go-sis unless I maindeck a Pull from Eternity, for example, I should probably go into the testing with a Pull from Eternity in the main so that I can gauge how negatively it impacts my other matchups. If my only way to remove a Magus of the Moon in game 1 is Wrath of God, I'd better have a manabase that can reliably cast Wrath when the Magus is in play or else I'll just die to that card. After I've taken all these things into account, I'll be ready to start testing.
Here's how the matchups looked on paper.
The main advantage Crovax has over Dralnu is a beefed-up Gruul game thanks to Temporal Isolation and the Solifuge-Wrecking Ascendant Hero himself. However, with Magus of the Moon in the picture, Gruul looks to be a struggle for any deck that plays Teferi at 2UUU, Wrath at 2WW, and still needs the occasional Black mana. Even worse, the games against Gruul go long, so there's a very good chance the opponent will be able to stick one on me if he plays carefully. Blech. Even if I do manage to do better than Dralnu against Magus-fueled Gruul, I think I'm still looking at an unfavorable matchup overall.
I crush Dragonstorm in game 1, but game 2 adds a new variable. A common Dragonstorm tactic is to build up fourteen mana using storage lands, cast Word of Seizing on Teferi for an uncounterable Orim's Chant, and follow that up with a lethal Dragonstorm. Dralnu has Persecute to combat this, but Black is my splash color. I do have Voidstone Gargoyle as an alternative, which might even be better because I can Teach for him when Teferi is out, and it can stop even a topdecked Detritivore. I think this will remain a good matchup as long as I devote the sideboard space to a Gargoyle or two.
Dralnu should be roughly a coinflip, give or take playskill. They'll have Persecute and Sudden Death main, while I'll have Swift Silence. Based on my experience with Blue control mirrors, Persecute could be more of a curse than a blessing. If my opponent goes for a Persecute with, say, Remand mana open and I Rewind it (with Remand or Spell Snare backup), it's all too easy for me to slip a Teferi in on his end step. Once I have Teferi in play, it's all downhill for the other guy. Still, if I get caught with my pants down, Persecute will be awesome for them, and Sudden Death will be an ace regardless. I can board in Sacred Mesa to compensate, though, so I predict about 50-50 (assuming equal playskill) for the match as a whole.
Angelfire has numerous irrelevant cards against me (Lightning Helix, Court Hussar, etc.), so I should be able to just Rewind their important cards and use my maindeck Pull from Eternity if they have Detritivore. I'd expect a favorable matchup here.
Bridge from Below? Oh, man. Not looking good. I guess I can Spell Snare one of their enablers, and then Remand the next one so that I can hit Wrath mana, and then… yeah, okay, basically I need to draw my one Extirpate to have a shot. Then, if I don't get mauled by a stream of Golgari Grave-Trolls backed up by Svogthos, I might pull it out. I guess I'll be depending on my sideboard to carry this one, too. Tormod's Crypt, Leyline of the Void, and / or Magus of the Moat?
Even if I move a Pull from Eternity to the maindeck, I don't think I can beat Go-sis with Crovax. Mike's deck has an effective four maindeck Mouth of Ronom for Teferi, and “six” Detritivore (“nine” if you count Mystical Teachings for Clutch for Detritivore) to my “five” Pull from Eternity. Worse, I only have one actual Pull and he has two actual Detritivores, so if he searches up both copies over the course of the game, the second one will stick for sure. I can't very well devote 3-4 sideboard slots to Pull from Eternity if I want to stand a chance against the rest of the environment, and even with access to sideboard answers like Pull and Gargoyle, so much has to go right for me compared to what has to go right for him, I'm still not convinced the post-board matchup would be in my favor. This one just looks bad from every angle.
So, in summary:
Gruul's Magus of the Moon looks to make that matchup unfavorable no matter what I do.
Dragonstorm should be toast.
Dralnu looks about even, give or take playskill.
I've probably got Angelfire.
I don't think I'll ever beat Bridge unless I draw a lot of sideboard cards.
Go-sis looks bad.
That's, what… two good matchups among the Decks to Beat?
What can I do about this?
The other day I got an email from reader Ben Mason that suggested Martyr of Sands without Proclamation of Rebirth as a good foil to Dragonstorm. If you gain a bunch of life, the Dragonstorm itself won't kill you, so you'll have a window to try and deal with the flyers. More importantly, it also lets you manage the “rawdog one Hellkite and then another” draw, and the “rawdog a Dragon and Gigadrowse you” draw. Obviously, gaining 9-15ish life against Gruul makes it very difficult for them to finish you off, and the Martyr can dodge Sulfur Elemental if you play and activate it immediately when they don't have thee mana up. (Plus, let's be honest—what do you think they're going to cut for Magus of the Moon now that everyone's stopped playing Boros and Martyr-based strategies in favor of three-color control decks?) Best of all, Martyr is amazing against Bridge. I can sit her on the table with a mana open, and as soon as they Flashback Dread Return, I respond by gaining a grip of life and clearing out all their Bridges. They'll end up with naught but a Flame-Kin Zealot for their troubles.
Sadly, for all the great things she does, one thing Martyr of Sands does not do is fit in Crovax Control. She requires far too many White cards to work out in a deck that needs that many mono-Blue cards.
For kicks, I started brainstorming decks that could productively play Martyr of Sands. Since there aren't many good mono-White cards in the format, this meant going to a White Ravnica Guild (Boros, Selesnya, Orzhov, or Azorius) for playables. Martyr or no, I didn't see myself beating Dragonstorm with a Boros or Selesnya deck. I had just tried “Azorius Control” with the Crovax deck and concluded that I needed too much Blue to make the card fit, and I don't think I can get Azorius Aggro to beat Dragonstorm because of Gigadrowse.
Orzhov, then? They do have Castigate, I guess. Ah, hell. I'll try anything at this point.
I threw together an Orzhov deck with Martyrs in it. It had the usual suspects – Dark Confidant, Castigate, Ghost Council of Orzhova, Mortify, and so on. Unfortunately, while I can work out Crovax's matchups on paper because I already have a strong feel for that deck, I have no idea how a brand-new Orzhov list will play out in practice. I was left with no choice but to jump in and start testing, at the risk of spending potentially several hours trying out a long shot that could prove a complete dud.
I glumly sat down to run a ten-game set against Dragonstorm to see just how quickly my hopes would be crushed. (Fun fact: testing against Dragonstorm is the most common cause of death for new decks I come up with.)
What?! That never happens!
“I drew a lot of Castigates,” I told myself. “The deck probably still sucks.” I would have argued that the wins were because I was maindecking four Aven Mindcensors, but they literally did nothing the entire set but attack for two. Every game I had him, the opponent was either too Castigated to go off before I killed him, or he was hardcasting a Hellkite and the Bird didn't matter. A Gray Ogre would have been substantially better because it would have required two points from a Bogardan Hellkite to kill instead of one – and that did come up a lot.
I played one game against Gruul in which I drew three Mindcensors, and they were all terrible. “Screw it,” I said. “These never did a damn thing against Dragonstorm except bite it to a rawdogged 5/5. I'm going to play Paladin en-Vec instead; at least he survives a Hellkite bath.” Then I ran a full ten-game set against Kird Ape and Friends.
Really? I thought those maindeck Magus of the Moons would have been the death of me for sure. Look how many double-costers I'm playing! Ghost Council costs WWBB!
You win, deck. I'll give you a shot.
- 4 Dark Confidant
- 2 Jotun Grunt
- 4 Martyr of Sands
- 4 Paladin en-Vec
- 4 Withered Wretch
- 4 Ghost Council of Orzhova
Besides the Mindcensor, other cards I tried out and cut included Stonecloaker (I don't have that many creatures, and he's overkill against Bridge), and the Ravenous Rats / Shrieking Grotesque package (Dragonstorm mulled to five, I hit him with three Ravenous Rats, and he won on 12 life).
I figure the merits of Dark Confidant, Mortify, Castigate, Ghost Council, and Temporal Isolation (I'm sure I've gone on long enough about this card by now) are not in question, and I just spent a bunch of time on why Martyr of Sands is in (literally half the maindeck is White cards!), so let's move on to the not-so-obvious includes.
Paladin en-Vec is unexciting against most decks in this environment, but essential against Gruul. (To be fair, there was one game when he attacked past Skeletal Vampire for the win, and a similar circumstance involving Stinkweed Imps, Zombie tokens, Lightning / Firemane Angels, or Bogardan Hellkites might someday arise as well.) However, he is so good against Gruul, and such a necessity to winning that crucial matchup, I think he's got to stay in the maindeck.
I wanted to play more one-drops, but couldn't find any I liked besides Mana Tithe. (Keep in mind that Martyr is only a one-drop in some matchups, and never acceptable on the play against an unknown deck.) Plagued Rusalka is great against Bridge, and unimpressive against most everything else. Icatian Javelineers is also hot against Bridge – amusingly, perhaps more because of his ability to efficiently commit suicide than because he can shoot their enablers – but is still weak against Dragonstorm, Angelfire, Dralnu, and Go-sis. He'd probably be better against Gruul than Plagued Rusalka if he didn't die to Sulfur Elemental, but either way I'm not pumped about him. Savannah Lions is okay against Dragonstorm, just as bad at attacking past a Court Hussar or into a Desert as Javelineers or Plagued Rusalka are, and even worse against Gruul than either of those cards.
Mana Tithe, though my favorite among the available one-drops, is a bit of an oddball in this deck. It's usually a one-for-one, sometimes a dead card, and sometimes a complete and utter blowout. Fortunately, the deck has numerous reasons to leave mana open on the opponent's turn – Martyr or Ghost Council activations, Mortify, and Temporal Isolation – so I don't always have to choose between making a play and leaving mana up for Tithe. Of course, a lot of the time I just start the game with a Force Spike on the opponent's first play, and that's plenty good enough.
Since I saw him do his thing in Legacy Fish, I've gained a lot of respect for the inclusion of 2 Jotun Grunt in a beatdown deck. The Grunt doesn't stay around forever, but it only two or three swings for him to have a profound impact on the game. He needs to eat twelve cards to attack three times, which is a backbreaking amount of damage (or card advantage, if they're chump blocking) for only two mana. In the late game, you can drop him when there are 8-10 cards available for him to munch on, with the understanding that between you and your opponent, another 2-4 cards will hit the bin before your third upkeep rolls around. In the midgame, though, if a lot of graveyard action has been happening or if you really need to deter Gruul for attacking for a turn or two, you've always got the option to just throw him down and gum up the works. Pricier 4/4-sized finishers do not come with this “emergency” option. Finally, he's another out to Firemane Angel and is obviously another part of the reason this deck's so good against Dredge.
Withered Wretch is a very handy utility creature when flashback is around. He can get you (virtual?) card advantage by shooting Call of the Herds, Think Twices, Mystical Teachings, and Firemane Angel, for a pittance of mana. Let's not even talk about what he does against a Dredge deck, and instead focus on the importance of utility creatures in a midrange aggro deck. The Wretch is as cheap as a Grizzly Bear - important against combo and control - and often a two-for-one or better, which is exactly what a deck like this wants to hear. Just don't go gorging yourself on activations just because you have extra mana in the opponent's end step; remember what Jotun Grunt's upkeep cost is?
I'll go over the sideboard in context.
The idea here is to get to four mana and cast one of your bombs. You can accelerate toward the four-mana mark with an early Confidant, or stall with Martyr or Castigate. If either Persecute or Worship resolves before Dragonstorm does – unless they trump you with Ignorant Bliss – you've bought yourself a lot of turns in which to put the game away. Ghost Council never dies in this matchup, so drawing more than one is pretty terrible; one copy can safely be boarded out.
It looks weird to shift the deck's mana curve so drastically – what with more than doubling the deck's number of four-cost cards, which are at the top of its curve – but what I noticed is that most games go like this:
Turn 1: Cast Martyr or Mana Tithe, or do nothing.
Turn 2: Cast Confidant or Castigate or play a Basilica. Confidant or Castigate may get Remanded.
Turn 3: Re-cast a Remanded card, or maybe play Withered Wretch or Paladin.
Turn 4: Cast Worship, Persecute, or Ghost Council.
Obviously you don't always hit all your drops on time like that, but the point is this: you are fighting as hard as you can to disrupt them right up until turn 4, and tend to play the majority of your damage-dealers after your fourth-turn Big Disruption Spell.
What kept happening was that I'd spend turn 5 playing out a Paladin en-Vec and passing the turn, thinking, “Shouldn't this have been one of those Ghost Councils I boarded out?” Ultimately, I decided it made the most sense to keep three of the Councils in, despite the weird effect it appeared to have on the curve.
By the way, bear in mind that I really did draw an above-average number of Castigates in the maindeck ten-game set, and needed them to win. The danger of ten-game sets is that they can lead to poor conclusions if you don't qualify them when strange things happen, so keep in mind that game 1 is probably not as good as the numbers make it look.
Love the Epochrasite here, but I don't know that I'd board in four even if I had them. These little buggers are only good when backed up by several other creatures and / or removal spells, and can get you into trouble if you draw too many of them. In the two games where I drew two Epochrasites, I bled a lot of damage while waiting for them to come back in, and was only able to pull out a win in one of those games. When you have gummed up the board with a Paladin or Ghost Council, though, a recurring 4/4 is a massive beating.
Dralnu (5-5 maindeck, 7-3 post-board)
+4 Persecute, +3 Epochrasite, +3 Phyrexian Arena, +2 Sudden Death
-4 Martyr of Sands, -4 Paladin en-Vec, -4 Temporal Isolation
In this deck, you have to play Epochrasite just right to get the most value out of it. Obviously you'll knee-jerk him down alongside a Confidant or Ghost Council to push in extra damage before Damnation comes knocking, and will gladly attack him into a Desert to get his 4/4 motor running, but you have to plan ahead for the turn when he comes back in.
By the time an Epochrasite actually de-suspends in this matchup, there's a good chance the opponent is holding Spell Burst. If he is, he'll probably just pay six and eat the 4/4 without costing himself a card. If you have nothing else to do after this happens, you're in trouble because you're probably going to be Spell Burst locked in a few turns. Instead, you want to save your big spells – or a couple of smaller ones – for the turn Epochrasite is coming back in, so that the opponent will either have to burn an actual card on it (Rewind, Spell Snare, or a removal spell) or suffer some negative consequences for tapping six mana on your upkeep.
Persecute is not nearly as awesome here as it is against Dragonstorm, as there are plenty of Black cards that mess you up. A resolved Skeletal Vampire is very difficult to beat (unless you have the Mortify or Mana Tithe right when he's cast), so he has to be Castigated on sight and often makes it worth it to Persecute Black if you know he's in the opponent's hand. I actually added Sudden Death to the deck specifically because of the Vampire, and chose it over Last Gasp because it can't be Spell Snared and is better against Teferi and Bottle Gnomes.
As for Phyrexian Arena, well… you know how there comes a time when every parent has to sit their kid down and give them the Sex Talk, so they'll know what to do when the time is right? Trust me, that's nothing compared to the Resolving A Phyrexian Arena Against A Permission Deck talk.
Yeah, I could have just said “it's like sex,” but that's been done to death. Moving on.
NarcoBridge (8-2 maindeck)
+3 Worship, +2 Sudden Death
-4 Paladin en-Vec, -1 Temporal Isolation
In one game, I Mana Tithed a Thought Courier, Mortified another, Mortified a Magus of the Bazaar, Castigated a Stinkweed Imp, and cast Temporal Isolation on the other Imp he hardcast. Then he topdecked Drowned Rusalka and killed me that turn. (He sacrificed the Isolationed Imp to dredge itself, hitting a Narcomoeba and a Bridge, sacrificed the Narcomoeba to do it again, hitting another ‘moeba and Bridge, and plowed ahead to victory.) Suffice to say, I'm excited to post an 8-2 record against a deck this resilient to normal removal spells.
As you can see, that miracle game was one of the two Bridge managed to pull out. Bridge is a beast if you don't play any of the ace cards against it – as Crovax didn't – but with 4 Martyr of Sands, 4 Withered Wretch, and 2 Jotun Grunt in the maindeck, I have aces aplenty.
This is as far as I got in the testing this week, but I haven't seen any Bridge sideboards that would much change this result. Even if they do have a Darkblast for Martyr and enough enablers to Dredge into more Bridges and go off that turn, I'll still gain a bunch of life in response and buy myself another turn or two to draw into Worship or Wretch.
Unless the metagame shifts again, I'll finish testing against the less-popular decks: Angelfire, Go-sis, and so forth. (If you guys have any that you think are particularly important, sound off in the forums. Preferably with a link to a decklist.)
Inspiration is a funny thing. Three weeks ago I was hell-bent on finding a midrange beatdown deck that could stand up to Dragonstorm, Gruul, and Dralnu. Then, just as I gave up on that, Crovax happened along and promised to be the answer to all my problems. Then, just as some new strategies cropped up to invalidate my Crovax plans, I stumbled upon a midrange beatdown deck that could stand up to Dragonstorm, Gruul, and Dralnu. Go figure!
Unfortunately, I've recently been reminded that earlier in the year I promised to hit the road with some friends from June 3-9, and as honoring my personal commitments is more important to me than a shot at Nats, that's where I'll be instead of at Regionals.
I'm especially bummed about this because this looks to be one of the most exciting Regionals in the past few years. New, powerful decks are cropping up every week, and I'm pumped to see which ones survive the carnage of the Swiss.
So, with apologies to those of you were expecting a Crovax update this week, I'll leave you with a promising midrange beater instead of a flailing control deck, and we'll see what further twists emerge in the week to come.
Until next time,