I am excited about Magic right now. I feel like there is something to blame for this. Something tangible. And in all honesty it is Star City Games.
For the past several months I've been immersed really heavily in graduate school and it has kept me from writing about Magic in the way I'd want to. But at the same time after doing commentary with Rashad Miller down in Charlotte for GGsLive the media master himself Evan Erwin decided to scoop me up for their coverage team for SCGLive. It's been an amazing experience being a part of it.
Watching the Open Series has been absolutely amazing. I'd already loved Legacy for what seemed like always even though it really hasn't been. The format was so wide open that you'd be force to call any deck that was more than 5% of the field “popular.” The Open Series just made me love the format even more as oldies but goodies like Sylvan Library would see play and decks like High Tide would reemerge (and be quelled).
Even Standard heralded by some as a dead format killed by Caw-Blade was exciting to watch. The innovations (particularly those of Edgar Flores in my opinion) were intriguing and I've always been a fan of the battle of small choices in the arena of deck competition. Clearly Caw-Blade was the king and from what I gather talking to tournament organizers and other people who keep track of these things Standard attendance began to take a hit as people wearied of playing decks that could not stand up to this tyrant.
Aaron Forsythe one of my favorite people over at Wizards of the Coast made a rueful exclamation about the StarCityGames.com Open Series noting that he loved it but that it sure did mature formats. I believe he was largely speaking about Legacy but certainly the case could be made that Caw-Blade was honed to its razor's edge because of the combination of the Open Series and Magic Online. Even as proponents of some decks might claim their deck was worthy of fighting in the same ballpark the basic common wisdom was that those decks were often suppressed by other decks most usually Valakut Ramp decks. Caw-Blade's reign honed by numerous matches online and in real life was basically deemed unshakable.
And so when NPH was released people assumed that this was still the case. New Phyrexia gave us Deceiver Exarch and on the back of that card and Splinter Twin Exarch-Twin decks bubbled up to the surface making some waves but most people still maintained that Caw-Blade was king.
They are wrong.
At this point Caw-Blade is definitely a great deck. As a weapon it is well honed and ready to be carried to a top slot by anyone with practice and skill in the deck. It definitely isn't the top deck in the format though. Neither are any of the new Exarch decks. The new best deck is definitely BluManji.
At least for now.
The thing about any metagame is that “best decks” have a way of changing rapidly. Whether a deck has resilience or not is a key feature of a deck's performance. How well does a deck handle itself when it is hated out? If you look at Caw-Blade you can see an example of a deck that is incredibly resilient. If on the other hand you look at Legacy High Tide you can see a deck that seems to suffer from an inability to fight well against a well-prepared opponent.
BluManji's ability to withstand resilience should likely soon be put to the test because in the current metagame there is no other deck I would say is at all correct to play in a Standard tournament.*
* Excepting of course some new deck that I don't know about yet at the time of this writing.
But of course almost no one knows what BluManji is.
We should probably start with Jumanji.
- 1 Molten-Tail Masticore
- 1 Phyrexian Revoker
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Baneslayer Angel
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 4 Fauna Shaman
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 1 Soul's Attendant
- 4 Squadron Hawk
- 4 Vengevine
- 1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
Lewis Laskin brought out this really exciting deck for the StarCityGames.com Open in Edison NJ. The tournament would be overwhelmed by Caw-Blade and won by Patrick Sullivan (hurrah!) but Harrison Greenburg would take 14th only a single point out of Top 8.
If you were to really trying to talk about what it was that made Jumanji a good deck it was actually pretty simple. Jumanji was a solid midrange aggro deck that had the capability of massive card advantage great speed from Lotus Cobra was resilient against creature-kill and had an incredibly potent access to tutoring because of Fauna Shaman.
A part of the real weakness of the deck was partly that it had to essentially play fair. It had to attack you to kill you and it could only resist certain acts by after-the-fact means. Blowing up a permanent in some way or otherwise nullifying it was what the deck had to do. If the deck wasn't killing you it had no plan B to get back into the game really other than hoping Vengevines could do it. Its answer to Jace would be either Revoker or killing it with the attack phase.
Lewis Laskin said of the deck “We mostly tested against Caw-Go since it's by far the most popular deck. The matchup is positive enough that we decided the deck is definitely worth playing.”
“Positive enough…” It's not surprising to me with this kind of feeling about the deck that he didn't keep playing the deck. I'd imagine it has a reliable 55-60% win percentage against Caw-Blade variants but nothing overwhelming.
Compare this to the deck that Larry Swasey brought to two StarCityGames.com Opens in the Boston area:
- 3 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 4 Fauna Shaman
- 2 Frost Titan
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Nest Invader
- 1 Oracle of Mul Daya
- 4 Vengevine
Last year back in November Larry took this deck to the finals of SCG Open: Boston losing to Dan Jordan's RUG deck. Fast forward to the Invitational and Swasey was a match win out of Top 8 with the same deck. Fast forward a few more months to April and there he was again smashing face with the deck.
I'd remembered the list vaguely when I saw it in previous coverage. I remembered feeling like there were some elements to the list that I didn't like but that it looked solid. Watching Larry play the deck though I was fairly elated. Take his defeat of Edgar Flores for example:
This was my first time seeing the deck play (and my first time saying Larry's name which sounds like Swayze). Watching it was incredibly exciting. He just dominated Caw-Blade. He would end up losing to Edgar in the Top 8 but in watching that match it looked incredibly unlucky. I'd watch him all day and I talked to him at the end of the tournament just very impressed by the way the deck looked and played.
Larry goes into some detail on his experience with the deck here and I think he does a good job of explaining how the deck works. He and I were already talking regularly online by the time that he posted that article and the version he posts at the end of that article included my suggestions for what the deck might want to do to fight against a different metagame again all pre-NPH.
The deck has had many names in the coverage. U/G Vengevine U/G Shaman U/G Aggro. Joey Pasco wanted to call it Simic Aggro. Larry has started calling it Blue Mean Machine. The name I heard for it that I think makes the most sense though is BluManji.
What is it that this deck does after all? It basically goes with the same kind of game plan that the Jumanji deck does: it is a Fauna Shaman/Lotus Cobra deck that kills you by attacking. The white cards of Jumanji are not anywhere to be seen and instead they are replaced by the blue bringing home the most unfair card in Standard Jace the Mind Sculptor as well as a supporting cast of sideboard cards and some good expensive drops. This deck has still very much the same plan of attack as the Jumanji deck and so I think that BlueManji is a useful name in both what it evokes and in what it means.
Having fallen in love with the deck I did what I could to finally just build the darned thing. Larry likes to joke that this deck is the most expensive one in Standard. It might just be true. Putting it together was no mean feat and I'm thankful that I managed to find some generous humans on Magic Online who weren't selling the most expensive cards in the deck too expensively and I was lucky enough to open two Jace the Mind Sculptors online (though not in the dramatic fashion of Gerard and company recently).
The thing to do with the deck though was to put it through the ringer. There were things about the deck that I didn't like and things that I thought might be close to correct but perhaps slightly off. I spoke a little to Larry about the mana and had my suspicions confirmed that it hadn't been rigorously tested. It worked. That's fine of course. But oftentimes with some more massaging you can make the mana work even harder. Larry wasn't 100% sold on the Sword of Feast and Famine in the deck and so he'd made some builds that started not including them. I definitely wasn't sold on the Garruk and he agreed that they weren't necessarily important for what the deck was trying to do. Preordain was a card that he wanted to try out and it seemed like it might be a reasonable call for the deck. I started working with it.
Again it was “fine.” I'm usually not happy with “fine” though.
After doing a large amount of research into various decks that had used Lotus Cobra to success in the past I tinkered around with slight changes to the mana base and decided to include something that a lot of RUG lists had used: Halimar Depths. I'd been using Halimar Depths in Extended and was surprised at how much I liked the card but particularly in its effect in both the very early game and the very late game.
One of the things I'd noticed about BluManji is that the deck didn't really have much in the way of turn 1 plays (only Birds and the lackluster Preordain briefly). Also in the far late game you often had gotten to that point in the game because the opponent had mustered up a stiff resistance and you just needed to find something soon. Preordain took up more slots than I liked and the Halimar Depths seemed to function a lot like Preordain but also allowed more room for other cards. This did introduce for the first time a potential vulnerability to Tectonic Edge but so far this has actually seemed like a boon because your mana is generally quite resilient and the time an opponent uses to Edge you can have such a minor affect.
New Phyrexia had also brought a few cards that seemed really interesting. I was more than a bit concerned with the potential for Exarch-Twin to overwhelm the deck in the first game and I already knew that the deck had a large weakness to Vampires. One of the chase rares in the deck looked like it might solve the problem all on its own: Spellskite.
Spellskite is just a total monster against Splinter Twin. Obviously Splinter Twin combo decks are prepared for a Spellskite by itself but that isn't the point. You're fully capable of putting down a very aggressive clock and supporting it with a Spellskite. After board once you're also boarding in actual countermagic this becomes even more potent.
Initially I had thought that the deck should also auto-include Sword of War and Peace just “for value.” Larry Swasey had initially had Sword of Feast and Famine in for that very reason and Sword of War and Peace just seemed better at that job particularly against the aggressive decks where the life gain might be of real value. In the end though after a small amount of testing it was reduced to almost nothing.
Finally one of the real standouts in the deck is the seemingly innocuous Phyrexian Metamorph. The Metamorph represents a kind of return to something that the deck used to do in the form of Clone but that was stepped away from in favor of more direct action.
Wow does Phyrexian Metamorph do a lot of work. It is basically a nearly strict upgrade from Clone as the two-life cost is often inconsequential. Phyrexian Metamorph used aggressively can serve as an extra Frost Titan on a discount or another Acidic Slime. It can be used on Vengevine even if the casting of Metamorph triggers the return from the yard making chains of Vengevines actually able to reach twenty damage. It can create an insurance policy on your Spellskite. It can after board copy a Stoneforge Mystic to summon forth a Sword of War and Peace. It can copy a Batterskull endlessly. It can go toe-to-toe with random problematic cards from the opponent like Inferno Titan or Grave Titan Baneslayer Angel Emeria Angel or Linvala. It serves so many purposes that I'm still hoping I can find room for a third but it's certainly possible that that is too many since the card requires something of use to be in play for it to be any good.
After all of the hemming and hawing I came to a decklist taking in the input of the deck's initial creator and local semi-pro player Matt Severa. The three of us would fully play out the deck four times. Out of those four times it would place first in a PTQ third in a Midwest Masters Series qualifying event fourth in a PTQ and sixth in that same PTQ.
That's right. Four times played four Top 8s.
Add on top of this Larry's experience with the deck in the previous format before NPH and it just seems so clear how incredibly potent the deck is. In the three PTQ events here is the total number of losses the deck had to other decks: two.
That claim is pretty interesting and worth explaining. Larry had no losses. Matt lost to me and also eventually lost to the PTQ Champion playing a variant of Patrick Sullivan's Red list. I lost to the same deck twice once in the Swiss and once in top four. It's worth noting though that I managed to pull draws that struck me as horrendous against that RUG-Twin player and that Matt Severa handily crushed that player in the Swiss.
None of this is to say that the deck is a favorite against everything because it isn't. I do think though that it is grossly favored in some of the most popular matchups in the format (RUG-Twin Grixis Twin and Caw-Blade) and its worst matchups (Vampires Red) are only slightly bad somewhere in the 40-44% range.
After our respective events here is what I think you should play for the deck**:
** I think we were all within one or two cards of this list's 75.
BluManji by Larry Swasey and Adrian Sullivan
- 2 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 3 Spellskite
- 3 Acidic Slime
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Consecrated Sphinx
- 4 Fauna Shaman
- 2 Frost Titan
- 4 Lotus Cobra
- 4 Nest Invader
- 4 Vengevine
There are still some minor things about the list that I'm not 100% sold on.
The first is the question of Oracle of Mul Daya. Both Matt and Larry strongly feel that Oracle of Mul Daya has no place in the list but I've had a lot of success with the card and I think there should be some room for it. In many games I've just tutored for Oracle and utterly destroyed an opponent who had Jace out. In others Oracle/Jace so locked up a game that my opponent really had no way into the game particularly after sideboarding where there might be Deprives in the mix.
They both feel that the card really isn't a part of what the plan of the deck is which is more aggressive than that. Further Sphinx does much of the work that Oracle can do. I can see the validity to this argument certainly. I'd probably cut a Nest Invader for the Oracle if I decide to keep it. Right now I'm on the fence on this one. I've had such great experiences with it but they could well be right and the deck might simply not need it.
Secondly in the board they both advocate for a third Obstinate Baloth whereas I'm fine with just two and making room for a Roil Elemental. Roil Elemental's job essentially is just to tear apart matchups where creature elimination is not something that you can commonly see from the opponent. In a few games against Jumanji for example I had a game going back and forth when I tutored for Roil and just turned the game off. There is definitely a role for the card if you ask me. If you have more fear of aggressive decks definitely make room for the Baloth.
We all still want to find room for another Metamorph but honestly I'm not sure where you can do it.
The sideboard is largely pretty simple to understand. Obstinate Baloth is against aggressive decks. The fourth Spellskite is there for value against any deck that suffers from seeing one (aggressive decks with creature kill or Splinter Twin decks). The Nature's Claim is there for Equipment or enchantments. Frost Titan is there for matchups where you want to win Titan wars. Sword of War and Peace is there for Caw-Blade and aggressive decks either as a “fourth” Baloth or as a tutorable (via Metamorph) monster of a card against Caw-Blade. Mold Shambler is essentially dedicated Gideon Jura handling—if that card becomes popular again you should absolutely make room for Shambler in the maindeck.
Into the Roil is largely there as a catchall. It can bounce essentially anything at all and can be a real surprise in a game where tempo is the name of the game. A Boomerang effect at the wrong moment can really turn a tense game on its head particularly if you're bouncing a key Equipment during combat a planeswalker to upset your opponent's plans or a creature that the opponent really wants. Matt and I have even talked about how wemight consider switching the maindeck Spellskite for a miser's Into the Roil; they do a lot of the same work in some matchups but are different enough that the deck might really benefit.
Deprive is a card that I spent a lot of time getting to. I knew that the deck wanted a counterspell in order to be able to handle the Primeval Titan menace. Larry had initially had Mana Leak for that purpose. Flashfreeze struck me as more powerful but at the same time with Grixis Twin emerging something needed to happen to help fight that deck that wasn't reliant on Flashfreeze. Of all of the countermagic Deprive was clearly the most powerful but the cost of the card could be problematic.
The thing was though Deprive's cost wasn't one you really butted up against with this deck. You weren't countering anything on turn 2 in all but the most bizarre of situations. In fact the loss of a land might actually not slow down your mana development at all because of Lotus Cobra. The versatility of Deprive meant that you could board it in against any card that an opponent might play in a mid-to-late game situation that was problematic. After testing it out I was incredibly happy with the card and glad I'd decided to take a risk on this otherwise fairly weak card.
As it stands I would feel like anyone who asked me what to play would get the same answer: BluManji. As I joked with Larry Swasey we agreed that “this deck is teh bestest” and Matt Severa said that this deck was “the best deck in the format not close.” That of course might not stand after people focus their guns on it but that's okay.
This deck's big weakness is that aggressive decks—traditionally good against Lotus Cobra decks—have the same strengths here. Its biggest strength though is that it is absolutely devastating against any opponent who is also a Jace the Mind Sculptor deck; I would claim that this deck is probably the best Jace deck in the format and is likely to continue being one even if the format adapts to it. That's a pretty big strength.
I'm going to be spending a lot more time with Magic over the summer. I'm still going to be studying for some major exams at the end of the summer (I'm guessing very very few of you would enjoy dealing with my summer reading list) but there will be plenty of time for Magic on top of that. If you want to follow along with me make sure you check out my official Facebook page and give it a Like. Similarly my Twitter often has updates on how I'm doing and you can find that @AdrianLSullivan. There will more than occasionally be other updates on my Twitter account like the occasional exclamation on how great my breakfast is so it's possible you'd just prefer my Facebook page if you don't want to hear about sausages or Madison politics.
More than once in the last many months I've been at a StarCityGames.com Open and just wished I could be playing in it. Magic is so great right now. I think that the new Standard format with New Phyrexia is basically pretty good if you can get over the ubiquity of Jace. I think that there are many other Standard formats that have far outshined this one but this is still an exciting format and there is alot of room for new decks that I think remains unexplored. Hell I'm pretty sure that there are at least three good red decks but that is for another day…
Until next time
-Adrian L. Sullivan