Picture the wing of a bird. Strong enough to withstand gusts of wind but with hollow bones to leave it light enough to fly. Articulated to allow steering with the faintest movements allowing birds to travel tremendous distances without wearing themselves out and yet also to fly with such precision that they can swoop down on unsuspecting prey in an instant. Truly a marvel of nature.
Now envision a penguin. It too is a bird but rather than wings it has flippers. Short and powerful these appendages provide propulsion in water instead of air propelling the aquatic acrobats through the frigid waters of the Antarctic as powerfully (if not more so) as those of their airborne brethren through the skies. Jonathan Seagull never had it so good.
The secret to how these creatures with such fundamental similarities developed such different methods of locomotion is all around them: their environment. Those who could adapt to survive in their surroundings lived to reproduce and over many millions of years came to take on the forms that we know today. Evolution.
I bring this up not to spark a debate with any creationists who might be reading (Survival of the Fittest is already banned – is that not enough for you?) but to look at the same phenomenon we're seeing with birds today. And not just any birds – my precious Squadron Hawks.
Caw-Blade was the breakout deck of PT Paris putting up an absolutely dominating performance. It was a deck designed for the field we expected at that tournament – one heavy with Valakut and U/B Control with a smattering of beatdown. Not only was the “plan A” of the deck well positioned against such strategies – that plan being “suit up a Mystic and go to town” – but the rest of the deck was built to effectively deal with big-spell-heavy matchups.
In case you're not sick of seeing it already – Ben Stark's PT Paris winning deck:
But environments in Magic change just like environments in the real world and in order to survive decks need to evolve. Tournaments in the wake of Paris barely resembled the Pro Tour. Instead of Valakut and U/B Control making up nearly half the metagame Caw-Blade decks have been everywhere you looked and Boros – traditionally a tough matchup for Caw-Blade – has risen up as the dominant beatdown deck.
At the StarCityGames.com Open in Washington DC Gerry Thompson took Caw-Blade to the next step in its evolution. In an environment he anticipated to be filled with Boros and mirror matches Gerry looked to red for his edge. Lightning Bolt and Cunning Sparkmage gave the deck faster answers to cards like Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede as well as serving to take down Stoneforge Mystic s and Squadron Hawks who dared pick up Swords.
Gerry's version of the deck served him well taking down the title in a Caw-Blade-filled Top 8 but this evolution did not come without a price. Much as the penguin had to trade in its wings for flippers Gerry's take on Caw-Blade lost something in the transition. Gone was all but the barest of countermagic suites to make room for the Lightning Bolts and the three-color mana base could no longer support Tectonic Edge. While the deck certainly improved against beatdown decks and gained an edge over Caw-Blade decks that had not adapted to the new environment it lost a lot of edge against Valakut and picked up a significant vulnerability to opposing manlands like Raging Ravine out of RUG or Creeping Tar Pit.
Which brings us to our next evolution. Gerard Fabiano and Ben Lundquist showed up at the StarCityGames.com Open in Edison New Jersey with their own take on Caw-Blade also adding a third color but they decided to go in a different direction: black.
Gerard and Ben saw Gerry's list from the week before and realized that others were likely to emulate its success and go a similar direction with their own Caw-Blade lists. Without Tectonic Edge Gerry's U/W/r Caw-Blade deck was vulnerable to Creeping Tar Pit which is a particularly convenient carrier of Sword of Feast and Famine. Inquisition of Kozilek gave Gerard and Ben's deck the ability to strip a Stoneforge Mystic from the opponent's hand before it could come down or to take the equipment it searched up before it could come into play. Doom Blade gave them a way to destroy opposing Celestial Colonnades Gideon Juras or any creature in response to picking up a Sword. They basically had everything they could want to fight the mirror match. When Ben Lundquist played Gerry Thompson in a feature match Ben handily destroyed him and Gerry admitted that he had been bested by a better deck.
As an aside while I may not be able to attend most of the StarCityGames.com Opens across the country I love the fact that they're going on if only so I can watch this kind of evolution in action. Before the SCG Open Series Magic formats that weren't being played at the PTQ or GP level changed incredibly slowly with major technology unveiled and major metagame shifts happening only once every few months. The effect that the Open Series has had on the Standard metagame is like watching the Jurassic era in fast-forward. Every weekend represents the equivalent of millions of years of natural selection and new species rising up in their bid for dominance.
But despite the seemingly huge advantages the U/W/r and U/W/b decks have in the Caw-Blade mirror when the dust settled in Edison “Classic” U/W Caw-Blade made up a full 50% of the Top 8 with only AJ Sacher and Robert Vaughn representing U/W/r. Particularly given the resumes of the players championing the “evolved” decks one would expect a better showing relative to the old standby. What happened?
Part of the answer I think lies just outside the Top 8 – in the Top 16. While there were six Caw-Blade decks in the Top 8 there were none in the rest of the Top 16 which was made up of a smattering of RUG BUG various aggro decks and Valakut. Those RUG decks – and some of the Valakut decks even – were full of Raging Ravines and Inferno Titans cards that are tough for the Edge-less counter-light three-color Caw-Blade decks to deal with.
That's one of the funny parts of evolution in Magic – sometimes it gets too specialized. Like koalas who can only digest the incredibly low-energy-density eucalyptus leaf and as a result sleep for upwards of sixteen hours a day (but aren't they just ADORABLE?!?!) too narrow a focus can be a weakness. I don't know what the field looked like in Edison but my guess is that it wasn't so far skewed toward Caw-Blade that the importance of the mirror outweighed all other considerations. I know that I watched Gerry pull out a match against Valakut by the skin of his teeth last week and that was only because of his opponent's mulliganing to five and I know that I watched AJ die horribly without any blue mana available and a Mountain in play. There's something to be said for the stability of a two-color mana base and there are certainly advantages to be gained from playing a full set of Tectonic Edges.
I won't be in Memphis this weekend but I'll be playing in a tournament of my own. For anyone in the SoCal area I suggest you check out the TopDeck Open event this Saturday near Riverside. The event has a $1000 first prize with another $1000 split among the rest of the Top 8. Their last event in San Diego didn't have a huge turnout so it's a good chance to play some competitive Magic for a real prize that won't be a ten-round ordeal.
In a tournament like this – and I think in big events like the StarCityGames.com Opens – it's important not to assume that everyone you'll be playing against will be sporting the latest tech. Metagaming too heavily against the “best decks” at the expense of versatility and natural deck strength can cost you when you sit down across from the guy playing his homebrew G/R ramp deck Mono-Black Control or Big Red. While it's true that many of the decks that rise to the tops of these tournaments may look largely like what one might expect going in it's particularly important to play a solid deck that can deal with a wide field in these kinds of events.
So what will I be playing? Well I haven't worked out the exact list but it will certainly be some version of U/W Caw-Blade. I've been playing around a bit with it online (as you can see from my videos!) and I've been very happy with the core of the deck and don't want to get too fancy.
I like having a solid two-color mana base. I like having Tectonic Edges. I think Day of Judgment may not be the best card to play as a four-of right now. It's great against decks like RUG but it's weak in the mirror and often just too slow against Boros or Mono Red – it's pretty embarrassing to Day away a Goblin Guide and an Ember Hauler and just know you're going to die next turn. For old-style Caw-Go Day was one of your best cards against Valakut but the Valakut matchup has changed drastically since then. You can't really beat a resolved Primeval Titan in the same way you could when you had four Spreading Seas to go along with your Tectonic Edges which means you'd generally rather just have something that can deal with their creatures earlier.
The primary contender to replace a few copies of Day in the maindeck is in my mind Oust. It gives you more game against Lotus Cobra draws from RUG or Valakut and can quickly stave off Goblin Guide or Steppe Lynx beats. It's pretty bad in the mirror but sometimes all you need to do is get a blocker out of the way to hit your opponent with an equipped sword anyway so it's not quite the blank it seems.
One card I've been messing around with a lot lately is Tumble Magnet. Tumble Magnet is a pretty interesting card in a world where people are spending a bunch of mana equipping their creatures and it's great at letting you tap out to play planeswalkers without just watching them get killed by something like a Koth. Hero of Oxid Ridge? No problem – take a breather buddy and wait for Gideon to deal with you next turn. It's on the short list of cards that could make it into the maindeck or sideboard though it's less compelling as a sideboard card since a lot of people are likely to have artifact hate against you to kill your Swords and it's awkward to be bringing in more artifacts to make those cards even better.
Unless of course you have Sun Titan. If you watched my videos that went up this week you know that I'm a big fan of Sun Titan in this deck. I became an even bigger fan when I realized just how powerful Sun Titan can be with Squadron Hawks and Mortarpod. Sorry that one's dead – and so is that one and that one and that one and you. When Josh Ravitz asked me for any potential solutions to opposing Cunning Sparkmages that was what I suggested and it certainly looks like it served him well in Edison. I'm almost certainly going to play a single copy of Sun Titan this weekend – the only open question really is if I find a way to make room for another. Decisions decisions.
It's tempting to just play whatever list did well lately whether it's the last deck you played in a tournament yourself or whatever won last week but Magic like nature rewards those who move forward and evolve.