Grand Prix: Kuala Lumpur is the kind of event I used to resent: a Constructed tournament with a format different that that of the current PTQ season. What I used to dislike is the extra time required to learn a new format, decide where to position oneself in the metagame, and having to assemble a new deck of cards to play. Life is certainly simpler when you only have to work on one format at a time! However, I realized that this sort of Grand Prix is also an opportunity. Often, the Magic community "Hive Mind" is very efficient, and it's hard to innovate more effectively than many iterations of PTQ players. When the collective consciousness is busy with a different format, it means that there are greater opportunitities to advance against the field. In this article, I will go through my process of testing and deck selection, until I arrive at the final formula I think is right for Standard right now.
I began assessing the metagame as soon as Pro Tour: San Diego was over. Jund remains the 500 pound gorilla which sets the baseline for the format. Both very aggressive decks and very controlling decks have a decent game against Jund, using either speed or card advantage to topple the giant. White Weenie, Mono-Red, and various Boros builds seemed to be attacking from the speed angle. These decks, in turn, looked like they had a lot of trouble against "Boss" Naya which was a little too big and resilient for them. Naya has a soft matchup against Jund, but not so bad that the deck isn't viable in a format defined by Jund. The margins are close enough that a tight Boss player will often come ahead of a loose Jund player. Mythic Bant looked like it went bigger than all of the aggressive decks, with enough lifegain not to lose to he most aggressive strategies, showing solid win percentages across the board. Zvi's creation would probably come out close to the top of the aggro-heap if it weren't for the fact that Naya's Cunning Sparkmage destroys his manabase (12 x/1 creatures), and once Basilisk Collar comes out the rest of Bant's creatures get eaten up. Even with this vulneability, Mythic looked like the best positioned aggro deck. The last big piece of the mix was Patrick Chapin's Azorius Control build. In a format where creature decks were playing cards to get incremental advantage in creature battles, it seemed like just not playing creatures was a powerful strategy if it could work.
I started by building Patrick's deck card for card without any changes. I think it's absolutely crucial when evaluating a deck that's done well at an event to play the list without any modifications. Even altering a few cards can give radically different results, and until you play a deck a bunch, you really just don't understand what it is doing. I played it for three days on Magic Workstation, finding with each round just how many challenging choices there are to make and operations to keep track of. What order do you stack your Halimar Depths? How many mana do you want to leave up after a Mind Spring? When do you start Fatestealing with Jace rather than drawing cards? When is right to cast Treasure Hunt? Etc. Each day I played the deck it felt like my percentages got better and better, each match I lost I could usually point to several things I did incorrectly. The trickiest things for me were learning to use my Celestial Colonnades aggresively, and treating the "bad colorless" land Tectonic Edge as one of my best lands since it is fundamentally one of your most important removal spells. It was doing well enough on Magic Workstation that I moved the deck over to MTGO and began grinding queues. Results were generally good, but never amazing. I made a lot of mistakes, and I had this relatively important thought: This deck is very powerful. This deck offers a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. Do I want to give myself so many opportunities to make mistakes? I think I answered myself the wrong way. Rather than just continuing on with what appeared to be the best deck based on its metagame position, I started looking for something simpler and equally powerful, hoping to deprive myself of opporunities for error.
I like aggressive decks: straightforward, relentless, unforgiving. When built well you pose a series of questions so quickly thay your opponent can't possibly answer them all in time. I brewed some brews, and the first deck that started giving me really good results (won some 8-man queues, 3-1ed a daily) was a Rakdos Vampires deck inspired by a guy who beat the snot out of my Azorius deck one round.
- 4 Bloodghast
- 4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 4 Guul Draz Vampire
- 4 Kalastria Highborn
- 4 Pulse Tracker
- 4 Vampire Lacerator
The idea behind the deck is that the format is actually pretty slow, and curving out on guys finished up with burn should be a winning plan. Red has trouble with Kor Firewalker, but if you play a different creature base, you can pretty much ignore that guy. I also like that Gatekeeper of Malakir is a great way to deal with any blocker, especially when you're killng their smaller guys with red burn spells. Pulse Tracker consistently impressed me as the best of the one-drops in the deck. I loved that he was essentially a no-drawback 2/1 at the beginning of the game, and he could get in one last point of damage when making a suicidal attack later. Even better, opponents often killed other similarly powered creatures first because Pulse Tracker is a lowly 1/1. Most of the best hands included a Kalastria Highborn, it was hard to lose when all your one-drops doubled as Shocks as they died. Bloodghast seemed to combo particularly well with her, generating a couple points of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't damage. The deck seemed to crush Jund and Azorius Control, was fair against White Weenie and Mono-Red, and had bad records against Basilisk Collars (read: Naya and Koros). Manabarbs was really amazing against Jund and Azorius, and probably responsible for the post-board matches remiaing so good. What I learned from spending a day or two on this deck was that every very aggressive deck was going to have a lot of trouble beating the life gain that Stoneforge Mystic and his toolbox represented. That alone was a turnoff, and then I found that the deck didn't mulligan very well. It is cutting corners on always having B on turn 1, and a creature to drop along with it. (Both count at 12 which is sketchy, where 13 is good, 14 is ideal.) Some cards were highly underpowered alone, like the burn with no creatures or a Guul Draz Vampire without friends. I think adding Vampire Nocturnus over some of the two-drops or some Burst Lightnings would have given the deck a bit more late-game power, but I just felt like I was playing a deck with underpowered cards. I think another solid one-drop and the deck might get there, but I decided to put it away on the shelf.
Having decided that Basilisk Collar and other equipment was the route to victory in aggressive mirrors I decided to explore a series of decks inspired by Conrad Kolos's Duelist Deck from San Diego.
- 4 Armament Master
- 4 Kor Duelist
- 2 Kor Firewalker
- 2 Kor Skyfisher
- 1 Ruin Ghost
- 4 Steppe Lynx
- 4 Stoneforge Mystic
I'll first say that this deck was insanely fun to play. There's nothing quite like stacking a bunch of landfall triggers onto a guy, Sejiri Stepping him past your opponent's chump blockers, and then using a Brave The Elements to blow him out when he tries to use a removal spell to fix the problem. I didn't like the Kor Armament Masters very much, but I think I might have had a different play style for the deck from its inventor, so maybe I wasn't using them to full advantage. I experimented with Elite Vanguard since I love one-drops, but ultimately concluded Kor Skyfishers, Kor Firewalkers, or Knights of the White Orchid were the right men for the slots. In builds with Knight of the White Orchid I also experimented with a Basilisk Collar as part of the toolbox to combine First Strike and Deathtouch to deal with problem creatures from the opponents' side of the table. I also tried Dread Statuary in place of Tectonic Edges to create some more resilience to sweeper effects, which didn't excite me overly much. I think the opportunity to Rishadan Port people in a deck like this is better than a 4/2 which interacts poorly with all your equipment. The problems this deck had were similar to the Vampires deck: lifegain from a Basilisk Collar or a Behemoth Sledge could just put your opponent out of reach. Cunning Sparkmages could also wreak havoc on your one-drops. Since I expect Boss Naya to be around a third of the field, losing to these cards just didn't feel like a good plan. (Even though, man, you could certainly trounce so many other decks with these cards!)
I tried to push the archetype a little further by adding more of the cards I was having trouble beating:
Having Knight of the Reliquary, probably the best creature in the format, gave the deck a lot more resilience fighting other aggresive decks. I'd lost a lot of modes of evasion, though picked up the ability to tutor for two of them (the 1-of Steppe and the 1-of Sledge.) It just seemed that no matter how hard I was trying to push this archetype, I was not finding the win results I was looking for. Everything just couldn't live in a format full of Cunning Sparkmage and Basilisk Collar. (Yes, you can kill them, yes, you can blow up the Collar. However, sometimes they just have it, and you don't. I didn't want to expose myself to this ever mattering, if at all possible.)
I'd lost a couple days testing decks only to prove to myself that Azorius Control was the strategically correct place to be in the metagame. I don't think it's a bad thing to experiment, to reach out and try new decks, but it's important to realize that testing time is finite. If I could go back and instead take those days getting more games in with Chapin's deck, I would. Every game played with the deck just increases its expected value, and the more deeply ingrained the mechanisms of play for this deck were in my mind, the better off I would be. The upside of testing with the aggro decks is that I knew what I was afraid of when playing the control deck, as well as which trumps I thought were good against control. I tweaked the deck around, and started running consistent win rates over 70% on MTGO:
Clearly, I have started with Chapin, Heberholtz, and Nassif's lists from San Diego, but modified it for the expected metagame of 40% Jund, 40% Boss Naya, 20% other decks. Here I will explain the choices I've made:
4 Treasure Hunt, 4 Halimar Depths, 4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 2 Terramorphic Expanse: These cards are an amazing card drawing and deck manipulation package. The ability to time Treasure Hunts to hit 1-3 lands for certain, to clear off the top of a stacked library, to shuffle away unneeded cards while looking for desired ones all give you control over your destiny in a way that playing off the the top "fairly" just doesn't. I've deviated from the stock list by playing Terramorphic Expanse instead of WWK fetchlands for a few reasons: 1) There weren't enough white sources in the list to reliably Wrath on turn 3 or 4, which is a sequence of play that I found to be vital vs. Naya, Mythic, and White Weenie decks. 2) I found I was sometimes running out of basic targets for my fetches, and being able to choose either kind of basic alleviated this somewhat. 3) I've found that 1 life can make quite a bit of difference, and in many matches I hung on by only this thread. (I kept close track of this with my U/r/g Faeries deck last Extended season, and found that I'd actually lost more life by playing mana for Firespout than if I'd just played mono-U and used "weaker" spells.) 4) With 16 lands that come into play untapped, I still felt comfortable that I would always find a solution to the puzzle of playing lands in an order that let me cast my spells on time. In the final count, I won more games from having additional life than I lost by having a land that played tapped. With all that said, it's possible I should pay more life to gain some more shuffle effects. There's nothing so demoralizing as seeing a bad pile on top of your deck and not being able to ship it away. I'd consider -1-2 Plains for +1-2 white fetches.
4 Path to Exile, 3 Oblivion Ring, 4 Day of Judgement, 2 Martial Coup: In a metagame full of creatures, you mostly just care about killing their creatures and drawing more cards that kill creatures. A few people have said you don't really need or want Path, but I completely disagree with them. There's really not that much danger in ramping your opponent up, since you are going to counter, RFG, or destroy whatever you're ramping them into. The only real danger is playing a deck with Goblin Ruinblaster or Ajani Vengeant and pathing them without a counter up for their accelerated turn and then they color-screw you out of your next sequence of plays. Having instant speed removal can greatly help conserve your life total, or protect a Jace pretty well when he's played with 5 mana. Finally, given the widespread adoption of manlands, these offer an augmentation to your Tectonic Edges to take care of the problem. The reason there is no 4th Oblivion Ring is to avoid blowouts from Maelstrom Pulse, the card is generally quite excellent. On the other hand, the 4th Wrath of God is really great in the deck. Any time you're on the draw this card will just save your life from the hordes of creatures your opponent will often have deployed. Martial Coup competes with Jace for being the best card in the deck. Usually the turning point between establishing control and having it revolves around clearing the board and filling it with a huge supply of chump blockers. (I only ever take Coup out against Mono-Red.)
3 Essence Scatter, 4 Cancel: In the main deck, you're still worried primarily about creature-based opponents. You have a lot of answers to creatures, and the timing isn't always perfect on a counterspell, so we only play 3 Essence Scatter. (It's also only a reactive card, and thus isn't exceptional when we're already behind.) I've bought the argument entirely that Cancel is just the best counterspell in the format, and almost always going to fulfill the function of Negate. Non-creature spells are generally expensive, and by then we probably have mana to Cancel what our opponents are up to. The other nice thing about all the anti-creature white cards is that we will have more Cancels to deal with other problems.
18 Land, 4 Celestial Colonnade, 4 Tectonic Edge, 4 Everflowing Chalice: One of the amazing things about this deck is how useful its lands are. Tectonic Edge is a removal spell against some of the most perilous threats to a control deck (manlands, Valakut, Emeria), and often offers the opportunity to take away a color from an opponent for a period of time. Colonnade is a creature that can dominate many of the ones your opponents will be playing, and is one of the best ways to end the game against most adversaries. Everflowing Chalice simulates making multiple land drops, and whether you cast it at 1 or at 3, it's like you just got that many free draw steps with land drops. This lets you cast really powerful spells much sooner than you "should", and to trade your utility lands without feeling the pinch on your manabase. Chalice is not the worst Mind Stone ever, it's the best Mind Stone ever.
4 Kor Firewalker, 4 Baneslayer Angel: Your match against mono-Red is difficult, even with Path being a very efficient answer to Hell's Thunder or Hellspark Elemental. You will want to bring in all the best tools available to smash them in games 2 and 3. Often they have a plan to deal with your first hate card, but the second one generally overwhelms their resources. I love ending a game with 2 Firewalkers and a hand of countermagic. Baneslayer is a difficult card for Naya to answer as well since their removal does not always line up well with the angel. Depending on how much removal they leave in, the card is anywhere from insane to useless agaist Jund. It can certainly be right to not board them and leave them with a lot of useless removal spells waiting for a rendezvous that will never come. This package of creatures also is very useful in the mirror where your removal spells aren't very exciting and having threats to win the game or kill Jace are pretty important.
4 Flashfreeze, 3 Negate: These cards round out your counterspell suite. Flashfreeze is a more efficient and flexible spell than most against mono-Red and Jund, and has value against Naya. Replacing Cancel with it, especially on the draw can mean the difference between survival and doom. Negate helps with the mirror and the few combo matches you'll see. Depending on the build a few copies may also be sweet against mono-Red decks.
My philosophy with this list is to do everything possible to survive the early game and that the powerful drawing engines of the deck will take care of everything else. The card that I probably missed most is the singleton Iona. She is essentially a super-counterspell, where you pre-emptively get to counter every spell of a particular color that your opponent will ever play. There are many games where my Jace is digging desperately for a permission spell so that I don't die to a topdecked Lightning Bolt where the best thing I could draw would be Iona. The downside is that even in the midgame she can be hard to afford, and I found that generally I survived every game that I had enough control to start digging anyhow. If I were to start making space for cards I'd look at reducing my Flashfreeze count by one or two. Since they're mainly an upgrade over another resonable counterspell in any given match, the slots might be better spent giving the deck entirely new abilities. The other card that is fairly exciting but not in the deck is Elspeth, Knight-Errant. She is a very useful threat in the mirror, and I've heard a few people I respect suggest she can lend value to other matches as well. If the mirror picks up in popularity, I would want to find room for up to three copies of her.
Here are my sideboarding plans:
Jund: -4 Day of Judgement, -1 Oblivion Ring, -3 Cancel, +4 Baneslayer Angel, +4 Flashfreeze. You should probably win game 1 since you have so much card advantage and they have a ton of useless cards. Keep in mind in the mid-game that all of the cards in their hands are probably Terminates and Bituminous Blasts, and consider not activating your manlands and turning on their ability to get in a Cascade. Killing them with Jace and Martial Coup feels much more reliable. You are a little concerned that they bring in Malakir Bloodwitch while you've removed your answers to them (Day of Judgement), but Baneslayer at least keeps it in check and often Jace can send the witch home and then you can counter it when they try to stick it again. Oblivion Ring is a decent card in this match, but is vulnerable to Maelstrom Pulse and not amazing against targets that make hordes of creatures. You should watch their build, and if you see a lot of cards like Siege-Gang Commander that make a horde of tokens consider keeping in some Wraths over Oblivion Rings or Cancels. If you see a lot of cards like Deathmark or Doomblade game 2, consider taking your angels out and leaving them with a mess of dead cards.
Naya: -4 Cancel, +4 Flashfreeze. I sometimes think about bringing in some Baneslayers for some Paths, but after boarding they have Dauntless Escorts that need to handled, in addition to the Wild Nacatls which can mette out quick doom if unanswered. I like this additional plan more on the play than the draw. Being able to Path their escort and makes for some delightful blowouts. The cards to really watch out for are Manabarbs and Ajani Vengeant, while them resolving a Ranger of Eos can be pretty unpleasant. In short, having mana up to counter their plan on turn 4 is ideal. Oblivion Ring can get you out of trouble, so try to use it only as a measure of last resort when not dealing with a red card that could ruin the game for you. I think this is probably the hardest matchup in the format for you, but if you play carefully you are favored slightly.
Mono-Red: -4 Day of Judgement, -2 Martial Coup, -3 Oblivion Ring, -1 Essence Scatter, -2 Cancel, +4 Flashfreeze, +4 Kor Firewalker, +4 Baneslayer Angel. Watch out for Manabarbs, and consider boarding some Oblivion Rings back in if you see one. You mostly want to play defensively while looking for a card that will hose them, though sometimes you can just race with your manland Air Elementals.
Azorious: -4 Day of Judgement, -4 Path to Exile, -3 Essence Scatter, +4 Kor Firewalker, +4 Baneslayer Angel, +3 Negate. Path is actually not terrible in this match since it provides additional answers to manlands. However, the matchup generally revolves over who can play and control Jace and anything that can kill him is pretty good. You can also sometimes just win games with an early bear which an opponent can't answer. Conserve your Negates, Oblivion Rings, and Cancels to fight over planewalkers whenever possible. Mind Spring for a lot is a strong play that can be worth countering. Don't be afraid to Martial Coup for small amounts to make a clock for your opponent, protect your Planeswalker, or attack an enemy one.
Mythic Bant: I don't think I really want to change anything going into sideboarding. A few people have suggested Baneslayer is good here, but I mostly just want to destroy their real threats, set them back with some wraths, and outdraw them. They are essentially a slow aggressive deck with no reach or no real trumps against us. Post-board they have Negates and Jaces, so it's probably right to remove some targeted creature removal for a couple Negates of our own. They are mana hugry, so perhaps -2 Path to Exile, +2 Negate would be right. I haven't tested enough against this deck to make a strong statement about what I think is right against them.
Satisfied with what I'd come up with and excited to see it in action, I put this deck together and packed my bags for Asia.
Epilougue - I played a grinder the night before the GP and went 5-0 to earn my third bye, defeating 2 mirrors, 2 Naya decks, and 1 Jund deck. Martin Juza and Brian Kowal were both on a tap-out Azorius build with lots of Mind Springs and Martial Coups, and it seemed most Americans were audibling over to it. I panicked a bit and scrapped my Kor Firewalkers for more mirror cards since I had seen hardly any mono-Red decks at the grinders and everyone local said there would hardly be any of it in the field. I started the GP at 5-0, then lost to a mirror, got paired against a Red deck for which my game was now impaired, and then had a bad match against Naya where I was long on lands and short on card draw. (Saw 0 Jace, 0 Mind Spring for the match.) This is probably a cautionary tale both against inbreeding (getting caught in a psychological bubble about what the metagame will look like) and against last minute changes to a well-tuned and tested deck. Had I kept my anti-Red cards, I likely would have made Day 2 and done alright in the field of Jund and Naya decks peppered with red splash B or W variants. I can't recommend this deck strongly enough for a person willing to take the time to learn to play it, and wish I had more Standard tournaments on my schedule in the immediate future so I could rock it some more.