The rumors are true: Solar Flare is back.
- 3 Angel of Despair
- 3 Court Hussar
- 1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
- 1 Kokusho, the Evening Star
- 1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
- 2 Yosei, the Morning Star
For some of you, that may not answer the question. Because really, what is Solar Flare? What is it trying to do? And why are there reanimation spells in what looks like a control deck?
The way the deck attempted to play back in Cheon's era is like a tempo-based midrange control deck. You played Signets to accelerate and Time Walked them with Remand, used some one-for-one removal on anything that snuck through, then eventually played a big creature while they had very little going on. Usually it was an Angel of Despair taking out your lone creature, and then you had to both deal with the 5/5 and amass some pressure in short order. No easy task.
Of course, the deck could also just reanimate a turn-four Angel.
One of Solar Flare's noteworthy aspects is that it played 2-3 Zombify to get “aggressive” with its game plan. While usually it fought you from all over the field with a tempo and control strategy, you had to also be ready for a Zombified Dragon on turn four.
The purely “for value” Zombify plan is one of the strangest routes of attack to ever rise to popularity in a midrange deck and one I didn't expect to see again. But thanks to some new Innistrad goodies, it's poised to make a splash once more.
While I didn't like the deck at all the first time around in 2006, this time I've found it to feel much better. Where the old version felt like it was trying to do too much and lacked synergy in favor of power, this version has both synergy and raw power. Granted, this version also plays much differently. The tempo aspect is mostly removed, and the midrange aspect is less pronounced, making the new version of Solar Flare a fancy Esper control deck.
In reality, this is different from the Remand-full Solar Flare of the past. Even the name Solar Flare was derived from Angel of Despair. (Though we may never truly know the answer to the endless debate of if it was because there's a Solar Flare in the background of Angel of Despair's art or because Dragon Ball Z's Krillin, whose special attack was Solar Flare, was bald like Angel of Despair.)
In any case, let's get down to business. Here's the list I've been working with:
Gasp! Only three Snapcaster Mage? Yes, all will be revealed shortly. This is the list I have been testing and have been happy with and, while the numbers aren't all the way there yet, it's a good place to start playtesting and work from.
Let's start with the mana base and go from there.
There are two tricky elements to balance here. First, this is a three-color deck that wants to play Mana Leak and Day of Judgment on time. Second, you need to be able to cast Liliana of the Veil on turn three every time. The mana in Standard might be pretty good, but that's still a pretty rough order.
Sphere of the Suns helps out quite a bit (more on that later), but still, balancing all of the lands is tricky. The eight that I knew that I wanted were 4 Seachrome Coast and 4 Darkslick Shores, because they enter the battlefield untapped when it counts early in the game. The harder part is figuring out the right mix of Drowned Catacomb/Glacial Fortress/Isolated Chapel and basic lands.
Some people have gone heavy on Glacial Fortress, but I quickly found that didn't work if I wanted to support Liliana. Instead, I went for a more black-heavy base. There are a ton of basic lands, but I quickly became tired of drawing hands with too many dual lands that entered the battlefield tapped.
Mike Flores talked last week about how one of the major errors people make with their new decks is that they don't have enough lands that enter untapped, and I can't help but agree. If you have to play a turn behind your opponent in a segment of your games, it's going to catch up with you over the course of a tournament. You certainly could add more dual lands, but I don't think the risk is worth it.
Of course, the counter-risk is that you draw the wrong colors, but I found I was doing just fine. I used the tried and true “play games and tweak the mana until you stop getting color screwed method,” and I think I have finally hit the mix I like. You could maybe play one or two more duals, but I wouldn't go for any more than that.
Finally, while there are some interesting lands out there that interact well with Sun Titan like Ghost Quarter and Nephalia Drownyard, I prize mana consistency highly. Those are certainly things to keep in mind, but I didn't want to risk going that route.
Perhaps what's most interesting about this creature base is what isn't there rather than what is. No ridiculous fatties to target? Only three Snapcaster Mages? What's going on?
After trying out all of the creatures, what I found is that I didn't want to fool around with cute excess slots. Yes, reanimating a Sheoldred, Whispering One or Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur may make you feel like a mighty planeswalker, but, looking at how the game played out, it would often accomplish the same thing as a Sun Titan. Even if they have a way to kill your Titan, he can bring back Snapcaster Mage, Phantasmal Image, or even Liliana of the Veil. Bringing back Liliana is better than bringing back Jace Beleren, and we all know how insane that was.
I've been looking at Solar Flare lists, and people have the aforementioned fatties along with cards like Sphinx of Uthuun and Rune-Scarred Demon. If you want to run a miser's Praetor, you certainly can, but all of that just seems like excess. I want to play my powerful creatures as soon as possible, and Sun Titan costs less and has a similar effect on the game.
Phantasmal Image goes hand-in-hand with Sun Titan. I tried to squeeze in a third, but there just isn't room. The Image continues to impress me, and I often play it to copy whatever I can. I'll use it to trade with their creature or generate some small advantage of my own. It's there for more than just your over-the-top Sun Titan end game, and I'd always look for your place to get an edge with it.
As far as Snapcaster Mage goes, here's the lowdown. The card is unsurprisingly very good. In fact, it may even be better that people had originally anticipated. Liliana is going to be the dangerously defining card of the format in the way that Jace, the Mind Sculptor was, and a flash Coral Merfolk is a rather potent – if hilarious – weapon. I have definitely dropped a number of valueless Snapcasters so far just to attack down a Liliana, and I'm sure I will cast many more in the future.
However, one major problem is getting overloaded on them early. An opening hand with two Snapcasters isn't always that attractive, and they do take some time to get going. Don't get me wrong, the card is phenomenal. However, this deck isn't built to take advantage of it as well as some other decks are. You don't have that many targets, and you're not going to curve turn two Sphere of the Suns into turn three Snapcaster Mage. I know it may look absurd to be playing two Think Twice and three Snapcaster Mage, but after testing only three Mages I've been happier with how often they show up.
Speaking of spells, let's get to those…
The first and most important card I want to talk about is Liliana of the Veil. She's the main reason why the deck has to be so contorted toward black—and she's worth every sacrifice.
Perhaps she won't end up banned like her blue predecessor, but otherwise, I expect her to define this format and see play all the way back to Legacy. Remember how any creature you played had to pass the “Jace Test” before? Well, now they have to pass the Liliana test. If they don't have an enters/leaves the battlefield effect, haste, or other creatures around to protect them, they fail the test—and the penalty for flunking Liliana's exam is death.
To make things even rougher, she affects an entire different drop class as well. On the play, the Mind Sculptor couldn't mettle with two drops. Liliana can. Liliana also deals with three drops on the draw. She clears out creatures tremendously.
If that weren't enough, her +1 is also devastating. Not only can she tear the opponent's hand apart, but most Liliana decks will have a way to use her effect also. This deck capitalizes on that by way of Think Twice, Unburial Rites, and Forbidden Alchemy, Snapcaster Mage, and Sun Titan, but there are plenty of other ways to build around her effect. In the future, people may have to end up building their decks to beat opposing Lilianas by playing plenty of their own graveyard interactions.
In addition to her great other effects, Liliana's ultimate also cracks control mirrors open.
Her -6 is a gamebreaker versus any slow deck when it goes off. And, to make her even more powerful, the Worldwake manlands are gone. You can't just Creeping Tar Pit her away—you have to get past her some other way.
Liliana is more than worth playing here. Just play with her and you'll see why I expect her price to be one of the few planeswalkers that will keep rising. She's that good.
Of course, there are 22 other spells to talk about as well, so let's get to those.
While this deck does want to tap out a lot and contains Liliana, it still packs four Mana Leak. The card is just so versatile and powerful that it needs no explanation. With that said, this is one of the few blue archetypes where I could see playing fewer than four. Often I find myself saving them for later in the game because I tap out early, but then I catch myself just discarding them to Liliana. I could see trying out three if you were looking for room, though Mana Leak is very powerful.
Forbidden Alchemy is the key card drawer and one of the deck's key engines. Thanks to Alchemy, not only do you find the card you want, but you load up your graveyard full of juicy treats. Whether putting Unburial Rites into your graveyard, setting up Sun Titan, or just giving you an extra card eventually off of Think Twice, the card gives you tremendous value. It even flashes back later on! This is one of the cards that makes this deck tick, and, despite costing three, I definitely wouldn't cut any.
If you leave mana open for Mana Leak you can always use Think Twice, it's a fine discard to Liliana, good with Forbidden Alchemy, and so on. It helps you find your best cards and hit your land drops early on. Think Twice is not only a strong card, but fits the rest of the deck well. People have always underrated this card, but it performs magnificently.
Sphere of the Suns is key to making your mana work and letting you cast spells like Sun Titan quicker. What it's good for is mainly obvious, but what I mainly want to say is that you need to carefully manage your counters. Think about what you're going to do over the next several turns and spend your counters appropriately. You don't want to end up cashing in your third counter and be a mana off of Sun Titan next turn!
Unburial Rites is one engine of this deck, but it's not always active and you don't want to draw two. It's a two-of so that you can find one when the game goes long, and you can also occasionally put it to good use early. For the matchups where you really want to reanimate, there's a third in the sideboard.
And then you hit the removal suite. Liliana leads the forefront of removal in this deck, but having a sweeper (great with Liliana) as well as some pinpoint removal before Liliana comes down is very important. I'd actually have liked to fit one more maindeck removal spell in, but space is so tight that it'll have to stay in the sideboard for now.
On the topic of the removal, the split between Dismember/Doom Blade/Go for the Throat is because of Snapcaster Mage. If the game goes long, it just gives you more potential options to Snapcaster. A lot of the time they will be interchangeable, but in the games where you draw Doom Blade and Go For the Throat early in the game and Snapcaster late, it gives you some added flexibility.
Heading into a brand new format, it's hard to know what to prepare for. Tempered Steel, Mono Red, and U/B, sure, but what else? I tried to cover some of the predictable bases, but after this weekend's StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis the metagame should be a little more fleshed out and you can change up the sideboard accordingly.
Timely Reinforcements should be mostly clear by now, but the one new thread to the conversation I'll add is that it's just insane with Snapcaster Mage too. Gain some life, trade off your tokens, and then, if they ever end up with two or more guys again, rebuying the Reinforcements is brutal.
There's various removal spells scattered throughout and mixed up for different purposes. Against decks like Tempered Steel or Humans that are going to push a lot onto the board I want cards like Day and Ratchet Bomb. (The Bomb is also very good against Werewolves, just in case.) Oblivion Ring is for beatdown decks that also have planeswalkers or enchantments, and the one Doom Blade is just the extra removal spell I was looking for maindeck.
As far as the large creatures go, they are parts of the Unburial Rites packages to sideboard in for certain matchups. If they're planning to swarm you, I board in the Elesh Norns plus the Rites to try and get that off against them.
In the control matchups, you will often just trade resources back and forth thanks to Liliana, and the games will go long. Unburial Rites gives you an advantage, but a Sun Titan army is good but not insurmountable. Jin-Gitaxias is a nice one to reanimate and you can often find it in a longer game. You won't always be able to make them discard their hand, but once you draw seven, the game should be in your favor. Plus, he's not unreasonable to hardcast in long control matches either, and you may want some threat diversification in case they bring in Memoricide.
Here is how I have been sideboarding against the four most popular archetypes I've seen:
This matchup can be a little rough, and you need to use your removal sparingly. Timely Reinforcements is great as usual, but be wary of Hero of Oxid Ridge. Generally I just want to navigate the game to a spot where I can safely play a Sun Titan, and from there it's all downhill.
Tempered Steel is a hard matchup, but fortunately you have plenty of good cards out of your sideboard. This is the one matchup where Liliana isn't that impressive, as they often deplete their hand quickly, and making them lose one guy isn't much of a dent. You bring in a lot of efficient removal and the Elesh plan, and it is often enough to overwhelm them.
U/B is a favorable matchup. You're playing on the same axis they are, except you have a major trump in Unburial Rites and recursive Sun Titans. I like to leave in Day of Judgments to deal with Grave Titan (same goes for the Solar Flare mirror but with Sun Titan), but if you think they have multiple Consecrated Sphinx I would lean toward keeping the Go for the Throat in.
Humans I've found to be a solid matchup. They're a fast beatdown deck, but especially after sideboarding you have boatloads of removal and the Elesh plan. Between Oblivion Ring, Day, and Liliana, Mirran Crusader isn't even that good against you. You're over-sideboarding as-is, so feel free to compensate for their various builds.
And that's a look at my take on the Solar Flare archetype! Back in 2006 before it won Nationals some people called it, “The worst kept secret in Magic” (An “honor” that would later be stolen by Elves in Berlin) since the deck had been showing up everywhere on Magic Online in the weeks before. This time, it's clearly out in the open and ready to be picked up.
If you've been playing the archetype, I'd love to hear from you! Post in the comments below, send me a tweet, or e-mail me at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com. The more information about the deck out there, the quicker it can be refined.
This is a new and exciting Standard format, and I'm excited to see peoples' attempts at it! Will Liliana truly rule the format? What midrange decks will exist? Is Tempered Steel still even a viable deck? These are all questions that will be answered in the next few weeks. It's an exciting time to be playing Magic!
Have fun working on the format, and I'll see you next week!
Rabon on Magic Online, @GavinVerhey on Twitter