States is going to be on us in what seems like moments. For a large number of you you’ll be able to tap into an awesome prize if you win: free events for a year. For those of us lucky enough to be playing in the Wisconsin area we’ve had it like this for a while. For almost ten years now Steve Port (of Legion Events) along with tournament organizer Barratt Moy (of Moy Events) have given out the Free Events prize and it is absolutely one of the things that I credit to making people really really care about winning States. A lot of people I know have pooh-poohed States as a non-event but I can’t remember a States in Wisconsin where it wasn’t a huge deal. I’ve won the Free Events prize twice and come close three other times and I can tell you from experience this prize translates into many many hundreds of dollars if you are at all serious about tournament play.
So what then to play? If you’re like many people you’re basically eying the King of the Hill: Faeries.
People have gone into this many times already: it’s not just that Bitterblossom is so good it’s that the degree of synergy that all of the Faeries have can be damning. Add to that the most powerful Command of them all and you have a huge place to start from. No wonder that this deck manages to continue to be a force to be reckoned with even as it loses cards like Rune Snag and Ancestral Visions. There is enough weight on the back of that Faerie frame to produce something formidable even as the question of how to fill it out doesn’t currently have a clear answer.
Page after page after page has been written about its current rival Five-Color Blue. 5cU (or if you prefer Five-Color Control Quick n’ Toast Cruel Control or any of its myriad other names) has a strong case to make for itself as the "best" deck. It can cast anything! This was my argument for why my Invitational deck (for the 2006 Invitational’s "Auction of the Genuises") was the best list*. Based on the Birds of Paradise Avatar it could cast anything. While it also benefited greatly from being able to abuse lands (Birds of Paradise adds its ability to every land much like Urborg does) the ability to cast whatever you want is pretty damn huge. Pierre Canali would end up undefeated with the deck and I’m confident that he would have won the whole kit and kaboodle if he’d made the final cut. 5cU gets the same power that my Birds of Paradise deck has.
So why isn’t it the de facto top dog?
It might be that in the hands of the very best players it in fact is. I’d need to see some proof of that though. In general it looks like "regular" Faeries decks played versus "regular" 5cU decks favors the Faeries. It can be slightly better than a coin flip or it can be closer to a 60/40 depending on the individual make-up of the two lists. This keeps getting borne out again and again when we see the results of tournaments out in the world.
Perhaps it is because of the synergies that Faeries is employing; yes the spell quality of a 5cU deck is just higher card-for-card but that’s not really how things go when we’re looking at the actual play of a deck. In actual play if we were to arbitrarily give Wrath of God a value of say "8" and we were to give Spellstutter Sprite say a "6" that isn’t the full story. Each of the synergies that the Faeries give to each other compound on each other. It seems to me that by the time a game of Magic is done that Spellstutter often approaches 9 that Mistbind Clique 9 or 10 and each and every other Faerie gets bonuses far beyond the value that comes from the mere text of their cards. 5cU on the other hand might have higher initial numbers for these arbitrary values but its synergies do not seem to boost things nearly as high for them.
Still it remains close even if Faeries has the edge. Lurking there on the side of these two kings seems to be the de facto Jack to their King and Queen Demigod Red. Demigod Red plays out essentially like a Sligh deck. Curved with burn the Red deck can game one at least take out many Faerie lists but at the same time remain widely scoffed at by 5cU. It’s an interesting strange game of Rock Paper Scissors with Faeries beating 5cU beating Red beating Faeries albeit often by fairly slim margins. Red has the biggest margins losing handily to most 5cU and having a fairly strong position versus Faeries.
Fairies can often take out these Red decks. Take Grgur Maretic’s virtual Top 8 PT Hollywood Faerie deck with its maindeck Loxodon Warhammer or UK Champion Jonathan Randle’s Faerie list with fast counters and no nonsense; both of these decks had proven to perform against Red. Randle’s semifinal match versus Demigod Red shows how harrowing it can be but at the same time also shows the value of cheap counters like Remove Soul and Flashfreeze. My own testing indicated that Randle’s Faeries could easily overpower an inexperienced Demigod Red player and put up a very fine fight indeed versus an experienced opponent. How much can we give up versus 5cU to maintain an edge there while recovering some of the problems that a Red player can toss at us?
So if we look at an example of "the enemy" we can get a sense of what Red is capable of.
Here is Guillame Baudois’s Last-Chance Qualifier winning Demigod Red deck.
This list is conspicuously short of Hell’s Thunders a card that has been notable in its presence of lists for some time now. Its sideboard has the requisite anti-Blue anti-Land anti-Kithkin cards that can steal away wins and then finishes up with a mishmash of one-ofs. While I think that I have my issues with this list it clearly remains an example of a successful implementation of the archetype.
What’s a poor Faerie player to do! A key for Randle was to overwhelm the opponent with cards while locking things down with Mistbind Clique and relevant two-cost spells. Agony Warp remains a common two-mana response to much of what a potentially aggressive list is capable of but the loss of relevant card draw means that you can’t simply due what Randle did.
John Price’s Faerie deck from the Neutral Ground $1K provides a build that is clearly heavily geared for the control war but looks like it might leave quite a bit to be desired if it were to sling against Guillame.
Yikes. He wants to play against other Cryptic Command decks that much is certain. His board (4 Stillmoon Cavalier 3 Infest 2 Negate 2 Mind Shatter and singletons of Thoughtseize Puppeteer Clique Sower and Warhammer) seems to acknowledge the existence of beatdown without truly properly address what a Red mage is capable of. If we look to Randle it seems likely that Flashfreeze could be of much use even without the massive card draw. Infest seems like weak sauce compared to Damnation but perhaps this is all that we have to go with?
Maybe we can get an idea from Joe Hemmann Champion of the U.S. Regionals in Missouri. This list is clearly pre-Rotation but it does have some interesting ideas:
Pestermite five Terrors and Rune Snag mean that the deck is ready to get to action with a quickness. If we are to use Hemmann as a base and marry to it Price’s list we can have a really interesting starting point:
I can easily imagine running a "Miser’s" / "Luckyman’s" / sneaky singleton Scion of Oona to keep people honest if they attempt to attack Bitterblossom perhaps over the Nameless Inversion. Dropping Scion is not unprecedented in other events as well. Note that John Penick packing Gerry Thompson’s Faeries list took zero Scion into Day 2 of Hollywood.
Flashfreeze isn’t merely valuable for fighting against Red but it also seems applicable to heavily anti-Bitterblossom decks which might play not only Colossus but Finks Bant Charm Cloudthresher or other scary cards. Keeping the curve low low low is of great value. In many ways Terror joins it as an ex-post-facto Remove Soul also low on the curve to fight back against the Red menace.
But what of 5cU? Scion can be deeply powerful here by pushing an otherwise controlling deck into the Aggro-Control moment thus letting the deck be a true Hybrid Control deck. Versus other decks the same moment is also possible by the gear shift that a Scion generates. The fuzzy line between Control Decks and Hybrid Control moves closer to the control side without Scion. Pestermite pushes it back ever so slightly back towards Faeries strongest position as the potentially dangerous Hybrid Control deck that can take Aggro-Control moments an awesome position against an opposing Control deck. But it doesn’t do it much. Thus the eight-pack of Thoughtseize Mind Shatter Negate and Oona are there to help the fight when it gets into Control-on-Control territory.
Oona supplies another interesting role versus Red much like the Warhammer capable of completely wresting the game away from its opponent – capable of wresting it away at least if you haven’t already lost the game. Both Warhammer and Oona give the game an entirely different dynamic if they hit play. For a Red player this usually means that if they don’t have enough burn to take you out they must suddenly direct it elsewhere.
Other non-burn based aggressive decks still need to be taken into account of course. Terror and Sower do most of the work here and with Warhammer or Oona potentially being of use depending on the matchup. Oona seems unexciting versus a White Weenie opponent or a Torment deck but might be of very great use versus something like Elves. Warhammer seems like it could be weak against a deck packing Cryptic Command like Merfolk but is probably very solid versus most beatdown.
Taking Faeries in this direction will almost certainly weaken the matchup versus 5cU but at the same time still keeps the match in play. Red is likely to be around in good numbers and even if you keep your main much more traditional you will need to acknowledge it pretty heavily with your board.
Obviously there is a lot to be talked about here. I’m sure that by the time that this article goes up it will have been massively covered by a ton of people. That said I had a little I wanted to mention.
BDM in discussion with Randy Buehler asked what deck the Elves! lists were most like historically. He put forth High Tide a comparison that I find very apt. Where High Tide develops bit-by-bit with a High Tide to get things kick-started but still going card-for-card trying to make a build-up happen that explodes. Buehler put forth Academy which seems off to me backing up his comment by claiming that PT: Rome had four or five Academy decks (though it actually had two Academy two High Tide two PT Jank one Necro and one Fish deck).
High Tide is also a valid comparison I think because ultimately the deck is just so incredibly potent and hard to resist in its full bloom. At its height High Tide decks I would argue were so good that there really was only one deck that could truly beat it Brian Schneider’s Suicide King (the Flesh Reaver fueled Suicide Black deck of the era). The mirror match would be won over the very slight differences between the two as we clearly saw in the Top 8.
It is likely that chinks will be found in Elves! armor I expect. MTGO seems like the place where this is most likely to emerge. The unique thing about this moment in the Pro Tour is simply that a ton of people noticed the deck when it emerged and didn’t necessarily expect that anyone else would. Masashiro Kuroda’s Pro Tour: Kobe where the anti-deck emerged as the victor (with five mono-Red two Affinity and one Tooth and Nail) is largely the result of the field knowing that Affinity was going to be good. Elves! strikes me as a deck that benefited from a ton of people saying during playtesting "Let’s not bother fixing this deck against Elves! No one else will have it besides two or three people…" Others actually didn’t discover it. Thus those people choosing to play it were in a metagame primed for exploitation. BDM and Randy Buehler nailed it when they compared the finals of Luis Scott-Vargas versus Matej Zatlkaj as a fight between the deck honed for solitaire speed and a deck that imagined everyone would have the deck. It doesn’t surprise me at all that these two met in the finals. Good work.
Tons of people seem to think that this result is indicative of a bad metagame and that the Sensei’s Divining Top’s restriction was a mistake. That is a separate issue. If Elves! cannot be contained it is simple enough to fix by removing either Heritage Druid or Glimpse of Nature and de-clawing the deck without releasing the painfulness that Top will return to the format.
* Here is my Auction of the Geniuses list for the 2006 Magic Invitational played by Pierre Canali:
AVATAR: Birds of Paradise (+0 hand/-3 life/"Lands you control have ‘Tap: Add 1 mana of any color to your mana pool’")
1 Akroma's Vengeance
1 All Suns' Dawn
1 Cranial Extraction
1 Death Grasp
1 Exile into Darkness
1 Haunting Echoes
1 Hull Breach
1 Innocent Blood
1 Life from the Loam
1 Nightmare Void
1 Seeds of Innocence
1 Shattering Spree
1 Wrath of God
I chose not to include Stifle in the main largely because I knew that there was only likely to be a single Storm deck. With access to "real" sideboarding I would have included several copies between the main and board but didn’t want to water down what the deck did if sideboarding wouldn’t happen.