"Phantasmal Dragon is just a blue Phyrexian Obliterator."
While this statement isn't entirely true it felt that way for the entirety of last weekend—or at least up until the point where it stopped mattering. Perhaps I'm getting a bit ahead of myself; let me start from the beginning.
Over the last few weeks I've been brewing with Innistrad cards for Standard trying to come up with awesome ideas that abuse cards like Snapcaster Mage and Liliana of the Veil but my brews kept falling short or appearing underpowered on paper.
I kept leaning on old favorites like Puresteel Paladin but I always had this feeling in the back of my mind that Ancient Grudge was going to annihilate me. Tapping out for a Sword and equipping it could lead to some really awkward turns but the theory behind the deck was sound. The execution just felt like it was wrong since people were already gunning for artifacts in Standard thanks to Tempered Steel.
A few days before leaving for Indianapolis and the StarCityGames.com Open Weekend Gerry Thompson messaged me on Facebook asking if he and his girlfriend Kaitlin could tag along for the ride. Now I know what a lot of you are thinking but Gerry and I have mostly resolved our past differences and come to an understanding. I'd consider us friends though we haven't really hung out much. We give each other hell pretty consistently but the hijinks are always good-natured.
With that said I gave him the green light for the trip. I even invited him and Kaitlin over for a nice steak dinner at our apartment the night before the big trip which was delicious as they're probably going to be our neighbors soon. As some of you know Gerry and Kaitlin will be moving to Roanoke so I suspect that we'll be traveling together to a lot of these events in the near future.
As we packed the car on Friday morning getting ready for the nine-hour drive I couldn't help but wonder how the trip would end up. I have no hostility towards Gerry and respect him greatly as a player but even I could feel the uneasiness as we began our journey. There is obviously still a lot of tension between us but over the next few months hopefully we'll find a way to iron that out. Maybe we'll both grow as a result.
End Disney movie rant.
When we arrived in Indianapolis about eleven hours later we were all exhausted and ready for bed. I still didn't know what deck I was going to play and I didn't have any great ideas. We were far too tired to brew or test so we just hit the sack pretty much immediately after checking in. We woke up pretty early so that Kali could get to the event site as scheduled and I could have plenty of time to finish working on whatever mess I ended up playing—pretty standard for me when it comes to a brand new format.
As I began peeling through pages of my binder I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising. What was I going to do if I couldn't get all the cards I needed for my deck? These tournaments that take place right after the release of a new set are always a scramble for the staples and card availability could definitely be an issue. Luckily Puresteel didn't have many new cards in it so I should be fine.
As I looked through my collection I could barely find any cards that I needed for the deck. A single Puresteel Paladin? No Swords? Not even a Hero of Bladehold? I guess I've been selling a lot of cards lately.
I was getting incredibly frustrated and person after person walked up to me and asked what I was playing. After the sixth time or so I just started asking people for decks because I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't really care what I played as long as it looked decent and I had a bit of fun. No one really spoke up so I continued my search. After digging through my binder some more a particular card happened to catch my eye:
This was it. This was the card. This was the deck. But why? Why Illusions and what did they really offer me that other decks didn't? These were questions that I didn't have time to answer so I just brewed instead.
Ever since I lost to a Mono-Blue Illusions deck at the Chicago $75k Championship during the Swiss rounds I've wanted to test something similar. Unfortunately Deceiver Exarch and Squadron Hawk were cards that I just couldn't stop playing and I never found myself even wanting to stop. I've always felt like the deck could be really good if built properly but I just didn't have the time to put in the effort—or did I? With an hour and a half to actually create something I began.
What started the juices flowing was the following list:
As I wrote out these cards on a piece of scratch paper I remembered my opponent at the Invitational casting Phantasmal Dragon and it wasn't that bad. I was playing Into the Roil at the time and I distinctly remembered using it to kill his Dragon multiple times. And didn't I have Squadron Hawk in my deck? What creatures in this format fly? With both of these cards out of the format what was really holding Phantasmal Dragon back from being a serious contender in Standard? The answer was: nothing.
Not that Phyrexian Obliterator is particularly exciting but blue has rarely had access to creatures with such high power and toughness for such a low cost. While you can argue that his drawback is relevant and he does die easily my argument is simply this.
What cards are your opponents going to be playing that wouldn't kill him anyways?
During the entire weekend there were only had a handful of times where Phantasmal Dragon died to a spell that wasn't Dismember or Oblivion Ring and he even went to the graveyard with the latter card making Moorland Haunt that much better.
As I continued to brew I found myself wanting another creature…but there really weren't any other Illusions to be played. I could have just jammed out with Adaptive Automaton or Grand Architect but both of those options felt rather mediocre. I didn't really need another Lord as the deck could present a decent amount of pressure already. What I really needed was some utility and card advantage.
Enter the obvious answer.
Everyone's favorite new toy Snapcaster Mage has the potential to be the best card in Innistrad and will probably eventually be the best card in Standard—maybe even Legacy. I've already seen a lot of promising interactions with him and I feel like he'll be making an impact on every relevant format for the next few months.
After setting up the creature base I had to fill in the blanks for the spells. I knew I wanted removal spells and began with a few Dismembers. While Dismember deals you a lot of damage it is well worth it for the tempo it provides an aggressive blue deck. You don't have much else in the way of dealing with problematic creatures and I found that my life total rarely mattered. You were just killing a creature that was going to deal you four damage or more anyway so it was worthwhile.
I felt like aggressive decks would probably be a problem in the early game so Mental Misstep could be a necessary evil. It is also a pretty absurd card with Snapcaster Mage making me feel like it deserved a slot in the maindeck. Overall the card felt narrow—but good enough to make the cut. There weren't a lot of contenders but I felt like slowing down the red decks would do me a lot of good.
Mana Leak was a must and I felt that Dissipate could take a few slots although I didn't want too many. It was good but a little slow. Ponder also could have deserved a shot even without fetchlands to shuffle away the chaff but after talking with a friend of mine about the inclusion I was pretty easily convinced that Gitaxian Probe was just better. It allowed me to turn Snapcaster Mage into Silvergill Adept which I did very often and gave me valuable information when determining whether I should sit back on a Mana Leak or just play out my entire hand. Gitaxian Probe was easily my favorite card throughout the entire day if only because it kept my opponent from ever putting me into a situation I didn't want to be in.
I also knew I wanted to splash another color but wasn't sure what. After chatting with a few ringers I finally found the last card I was looking for to make the deck awesome.
The card itself isn't all that impressive on paper but when combined with a few aggressively-costed creatures that die easily it becomes a powerhouse. With the eight duals for U/W it was basically a free splash and virtually never hindered my development in my matches.
The sideboard was a little tricky because I didn't know what to build it for exactly. I expected a ton of Tempered Steel and Birthing Pod since those were the easy ports from the previous format and people would have access to most of the cards. I didn't expect a lot of U/x control decks simply due to card availability. Liliana of the Veil sold out pretty quickly and it has more than doubled in price since last weekend. Other than that I felt like Mono Red decks could show up but I wasn't expecting a lot of them. For the most part I was right. I played against a healthy variety of decks.
For those of you wondering (or who haven't seen it yet) here is the deck I ended up playing for the Standard portion of the Open Weekend in Indy.
As most of you reading this know by now I ended up making the Top 4 of the Standard Open with this list but it was far from "well-tuned." I think that the deck has incredible potential and a lot of the cards need to be discussed at length. However Mono Red preys on aggro-control decks like this one so I don't really see this deck having much of an immediate future.
If you aren't afraid of the red menace or just want to jam some blue Phyrexian Obliterators then then there are a lot of changes that we need to make to the deck. The sideboard was cool but needed a lot of work. Flashfreeze was mediocre and I didn't even really want to side it in against most decks. I barely wanted to side it in against Mono Red which is just awkward. Gut Shot was fine but I feel like Mental Misstep should fill that role or at least that we should just be playing fewer Gut Shots without a way to gain life. Dismember is already a hefty toll on your life total.
The seven "answers" for artifacts were fine but I felt like there were too many. I really needed more sideboard cards against Solar Flare and other control decks as the singleton Dissipate just wasn't cutting it when I needed to side out Dismember and Mental Misstep.
Mono Red took the top two slots in that tournament and for good reason. Shrine of Burning Rage is an absurd card and there aren't a ton of reasonable answers to it in most colors. One of my biggest problems with the Shrine is that most answers are incredibly narrow leaving you with some mediocre options. Naturalize and similar answers don't have any other targets against Mono Red outside of the Shrine and can often be dead cards when you draw them at the wrong time. Additionally you could just draw them a turn too late and your opponent can just fling the Shrine at you for a "paltry" five damage while trading one-for-one.
I'm not complaining about the card because I feel like red would be a very underpowered color without it but Shrine should be the card you plan against before you even sit down for the match. I just think that Shrine should be the number-one card on your mind when building your deck sideboard and game plan against Mono Red because it presents a unique threat that most decks aren't equipped to deal with. It feels like playing against a two-drop planeswalker that you can't attack which is frightening.
Illusions are not very good against maindeck Arc Trails or Gut Shots. They're not even good against a Shock. My biggest hope when moving forward with this deck is that the format will likely end up much like it did at the end of last season: dominated by blue-based control decks. If this is the case then Illusions will be good again but it might take a little time.
If that ends up happening and control decks rule the roost then Illusions could be a prime candidate once again—but the current Standard is in its genesis. Red decks are coming out on top and that's just not good. It was certainly bad news for me in the semifinals but it is even worse news for anyone who wants to play with Phantasmal Dragon in the near future.
For the most part the day ended up going extremely well. I kept my mood light and half-heartedly apologized to all of my opponents for beating them with a draft deck. But even then I felt like the deck had some real potential. While the cards weren't good in an old format that doesn't mean they can't be good now. The ecosystem is changing and the natural predators of some decks have evolved significantly. That's going to lead to a lot of strange things in the coming weeks but I think this past weekend was a great showcase in the potential that the format has.
The joke now is that the deck is actually good or at least was really good for that particular tournament. I won most of my matches handily though I chalk that up to not having to play against any red decks in the Swiss. I feel like this deck has the same problem as Merfolk in Legacy: you prey on the slow decks but have a lot of trouble against any deck faster than you. At least in Standard there isn't a Storm deck that can kill you on the first turn two games in a row on the SCGLive camera—sorry Chrandersen!
With Illusions it's hard to tell what's real and what isn't but that's the best part about it. Brad Nelson continually railed me all day for playing a deck with Phantasmal Dragon in it but he definitely wasn't the only one. I gave myself hell about it every single round jokingly going up to people and bragging about how my Phantasmal Dragons just took down another glassy-eyed opponent who couldn't figure out what happened.
What happened is that Squadron Hawk isn't a card anymore and no one plays Disperse in place of their lost Into the Roils. Phantasmal Dragon is actually ridiculous and you should get used to getting eaten by them unless you're planning on playing a deck with Incinerate. For those of you clamoring for a decklist with some much-needed changes here is the best I've got:
The plan against Mono Red after sideboarding is to board out a lot of your vulnerable creatures and bring in Timely Reinforcements and Batterskull as your new win conditions. Snapcaster Mage should stay in the deck as should most of your other utility spells but Lord of the Unreal and Phantasmal Dragon should definitely get the axe. I would also recommend a few Revoke Existences just to deal with Shrines since they're your biggest weakness after you transform.
I don't recommend siding in Batterskull or Timely Reinforcements in a lot of matchups because that isn't really what you're trying to do. This is just a desperate maneuver to help fight a bad matchup. Mental Misstep Timely Reinforcements Mana Leak and your other disruption should just buy you time to land a Batterskull and get to work.
Surgical Extraction and Dissipate are great cards against control decks and Batterskull can have its uses as well due to your ability to rebuy it but I wouldn't go overboard. You're only playing twenty-three lands after all.
The rest of the cards are fairly self-explanatory. I felt like I needed Oblivion Ring all day and almost played four at the beginning but I wanted to make Snapcaster Mage as versatile as possible. While I only cut two cards for Oblivion Rings I think he'll likely have as much of an impact as he did before. Snapcaster Mage is a very well-designed card and he'll find many homes over the next few months.
In closing I would like to say that for the first time in a while I actually had a ton of fun playing at a Magic tournament. I played a deck that was definitely off the radar and people didn't respect it at all which gave me a distinct advantage as well as a sense of pride. They would often just burn their removal too early and get run over by a Dragon. Best of all they lamented their demise to "such bad cards" during the entirety of the process! It was truly a fluke that I chose such a potent weapon with such little preparation but I don't feel like that makes the deck any less good. With some work and good pairings this deck could easily wind up making its way to the top again very soon.
Perhaps I'll be playing something similar in Nashville but I'm a control player at heart. I'll probably brew something with Sun Titan Forbidden Alchemy and Think Twice since I love those cards with a passion. I watched people do some disgusting things with that deck and I was actually jealous that I didn't get to play with them. I guess I can't complain too much though considering my end result.
Thanks to everyone who was rooting for me the entire day. It meant a lot to have supporters when I felt like I'd jumped off the deep end. Whenever someone asked me what I was playing and I told them Illusions I would often get the standard snickering retort: "For real?" I would just walk away with a smile on my face. After all...
The dream does not end until I say so.
Thanks for reading.
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