It is never surprising to see aggressive decks finishing better than their control counterparts in the first couple weeks of a brand new format. Control decks need time to find the perfect mix of spells to become true contenders. This was exactly what happened in Indianapolis this last weekend when aggressive decks dominated the tournament. Even if control decks did not take down the event, the groundwork was laid down for what they will become.
The players from StarCityGames.com Open: Indianapolis almost unanimously agreed that Solar Flare is the best control archetype. There were very few people in the event running a two-color control deck. I have to agree with them because it is not that difficult to make a three-color mana base work right now. There are so many dual lands that come into play untapped, allowing these decks to not lose much tempo. Sometimes casting a spell with multiple mana symbols can be difficult, but it's a sacrifice worth taking to have that many powerful spells in one deck.
The highest finishing Solar Flare list was from William Allman.
The reason that William did better than the rest is because of the metagame. Many control players made sure to prepare for other control decks as their number one threat. I heard from almost all of them that their biggest fear was playing against another control deck that was better equipped to fight Liliana. However, there were more aggressive decks, and the sideboard cards to fight them were stuck in sideboards.
William, on the other hand, packed Timely Reinforcements in the main as well as Wurmcoil Engines in the main and side. This gave William a great matchup against most of the aggressive decks. His control matchups were probably a bit difficult, but he still had enough power to stand a chance. He just decided to make sure beating aggressive decks was priority number one, and it worked out for him.
This is an important lesson to learn when dealing with the Fall format shift. Aggressive decks will always outnumber the control counterparts. Not only is it cheaper to make an aggressive deck, but it's easier to figure out how to build them right when the format is new. Proactive strategies are easier to find and pilot when players are looking for what to play.
Even with this information, good players never listen to themselves. They counter this argument with the fact that they're more afraid of the other good/better players in the tournament and would much rather be prepared to beat them. The good players in a tournament tend to play some version of control in the format. This time around it was Solar Flare. These players then make small adjustments to their decks to have a better chance in that matchup.
The problem with this is that you can still beat a control deck without the correct tools. You don't need a ton of specific answers to take them down, since the games will still go long. You both will be running a decent number of the same cards, so finding an edge is important, but that edge can be found in how you play out the matchup.
You cannot beat an aggro deck without the correct tools. This is the main reason why you see Mono Red decks do well. They always do well when people have the least respect for them. Mono Red is a terrible choice when everyone is packing Celestial Purge and Timely Reinforcements, but an amazing one when these same people forget that it is a deck.
AJ Sacher's list is a prime example of this.
AJ is a great player and one of the best in the SCG circuit right now. He always plays great decklists, and this is no different. His version of Solar Flare was my favorite in this event. That said, I still think he did not have enough tools in his maindeck for the aggressive matchups.
Gideon Jura does not fit this deck. This planeswalker is a very powerful card when you have a board to use it with. Last season, this guy was a powerhouse because people weren't playing a lot of swarm decks, and everyone was playing with Swords. He's weaker now. You need to be able to create a board presence before you cast him against most decks for him to be most effective. In Caw-Blade, he was excellent because you had Squadron Hawks and Mirran Crusader/Blade Splicer to force good blocks. This format is all about fast, swarming creatures or powerful ones that can win the game on their own.
Dismember is another card that just does not fit this deck. Dismember is the best non-black removal spell there is. It should almost never go in a deck that has access to black mana since there are other removal spells that don't cause life loss. This is also a format full of Titans and Consecrated Sphinxes, which cannot be effectively Dismembered. Having access to a removal spell on turn one is not that important right now.
The big question in my mind after this event is why having access to a reanimation spell is important in the first place. Unburial Rites is a great card to have for mirror matches in game one but seems like such a clunky card in all other aspects. After sideboard, players will have access to Surgical Extraction for the mirror, making it almost impossible to use properly. It seems slow against aggressive decks. Casting a turn-four Sun Titan seems like a great strategy, but the odds of this are very slim. Phantasmal Image combos well with Sun Titan, but is it really needed to win a game when Sun Titan resolves?
Most of the players in Indianapolis told me the reason for these spells is so you have a high number of cards to discard to Liliana that can gain value later in the game. This makes complete sense when looking for value, but this does not win Magic games.
Liliana also does not have to be the focal point of this deck. You do not have to restrict yourself by playing as many flashback and reanimation spells as possible. These are mostly helpful for gaining an edge in the mirror. When not facing a Solar Flare deck, discarding a spell or land is not the end of the world. You still have Liliana in play!
Moving towards a more traditional control deck might be the correct place to go. The deck will lose some of its overall power but become more consistent and have a much better matchup against the aggressive decks in the format.
Sun Titan is still the most powerful threat to play even though this deck does not have Phantasmal Image and Unburial Rites. The ability to buyback Oblivion Rings and Liliana of the Veil is reason enough to play this Titan.
Oblivion Ring is absolutely amazing right now. It deals with any problematic permanent and can be recurred with Sun Titan. I started with four and was not unhappy with that number. I might end up moving back to four of them in the future, but the only card I can see cutting to make room for it is a Liliana of the Veil, and I don't want to do that right now. If other control decks start running more copies, I might have to do the same.
The most unusual slot in this deck is the Snapcaster Mage in the sideboard. I never liked having too many of these guys in the maindeck, since they are rarely anything special. The only truly impressive game one spell for them is Timely Reinforcements. This all changes once we move into sideboarded games.
All of the instants and sorceries in the sideboard are very specific as well as powerful in certain matchups. The biggest are the Surgical Extractions. This card is the key to winning many games against control decks, and being able to play more copies of them is great. I don't want to run more than two Surgical Extractions, so having extra Snapcaster Mages makes sense.
Curse of Death's Hold is a very mediocre card against most of the aggressive decks out there. It only really shines when facing off against decks running Moorland Haunt. This land is a very big pain for control decks right now, and being able to just shut it off completely is great. Sometimes you'll have to Oblivion Ring an Honor of the Pure to make this happen, but it is well worth it.
This is the worst matchup for this deck. They have access to more powerful ways to abuse Liliana, so don't try to force yours into play. Use your copies of this spell as a removal spell for theirs. Don't protect yours either. If you're on the play with Liliana and Oblivion Ring, don't be afraid to run it out on turn three and not even activate it. This is not always the case. If they are on the mulligan or you have access to multiple flashback draw spells, you can easily try to get this guy up to six loyalty.
Your goal in game one is to find Jace, Memory Adept and ride it to victory. This means you never blink. Just play draw go with them until they go for something. Both decks have a ton of card advantage spells, and both are afraid to run anything out there early into Mana Leak.
Never flashback a card draw spell when you have the possibility of discarding, even if that card is a Timely Reinforcement. You will eventually discard it to a Liliana of the Veil later in the game.
The same strategy goes into sideboarded games. You will want to fight and protect your Jaces, but that is it. Day of Judgment is still very powerful since it will kill off a chain of Sun Titans. Play the control route and pilot the game as if you will lose if you blink first. Only break this rule when appropriate.
Protect your life total as best as possible. Only use Liliana's +1 ability if you are ahead on board and have a good life total. Chandra's Phoenix is a very powerful card against this guy. Try to set up good edicts with the walker.
This is sideboarding on the draw. Jace, Memory Adept is a fine card to have in the deck if you are on the play. Liliana of the Veil is not a strong card for this matchup. I don't really know what to say about this matchup after that. Just don't die!
The most important thing about this matchup is to respect how powerful they can be. Do not keep loose hands and mulligan anything that does not interact with them. This means you will have to have some form of removal in the opening hand.
Tempered Steel is a much more difficult matchup than Mono Red. I would rather have the slower card advantage spell in the main but be able to dig deeper for the cards I need. Think Twice is very powerful against Mono Red, since the games go very long with the help of Timely Reinforcements. Even though flashbacking Alchemy against Tempered Steel is rare, it still helps when trying to dig for Day of Judgment.
I would suggest one more Ratchet Bomb in the sideboard if you think this matchup will be popular in your area. I don't think the deck will be that big, so this is why I'm skimping on the removal for it.
I feel that this is a really good matchup. They have more aggressive elements, but this deck is equipped to deal with them. Tempo is the biggest thing this deck has going for it, so make sure to almost always use a Mana Leak on whatever threat they are playing in the early game. Even if that turn-three sword has nothing to equip does not mean that won't change very shortly.
Just get to the late game intact, and your deck should draw better than theirs.
States is only one week away and this is exactly the type of deck I want to battle with. Creature decks are always present, and preying on them is a great strategy. I wish the best of luck to anyone battling it out this weekend and even more to those taking this for a spin. You won't be disappointed (unless you lose). See you guys next week!