When Zendikar block rotated out and Innistrad rotated in, I was having a difficult time finding a winning strategy. I wandered from U/W Tap Out, to RUG control. I tried flavors of Puresteel Paladin and flavors of Birthing Pod, but nothing caught my fancy. I was looking for decks. Not strategies.
Bad idea. While I know that talking about individual cards and decks is how the majority of people approach winning Magic games, riding the metagame merry-go-round is not for me. I like to do things that are fundamentally powerful and let the details work themselves out. I went through my archives and read this article to see if that would help the brewing process. It did.
One thing that was both frustrating and exciting was the lack of quality mana in the new Standard. The 3-color decks were long on powerful spells, but short on quality mana. I enjoy Magic the most when there are costs to having power. Allowing everyone to do everything isn't that fun.*
As per one of the major lessons in that article, I decided against any sort of 3-color deck. I wanted my deck to have good mana, and I wanted to be able to take advantage of some of the quality colorless lands in Innistrad (Moorland Haunt, Kessig Wolf Run, etc.). These lands are the real deal, and I feel that they will subtly define Standard for as long as Innistrad is legal.
Already we are seeing the results of these lands. The Top 8 of GP Brisbane featured seven decks that involved three different lands; most of them involved strategies central to their deck. When I talked about favoring strategies over decks, the Innistrad lands lend themselves to certain strategies. Ghost Quarter is the metagamer's card. Gavony Township is the strategist's card.
As my "Best Decks" article says, one of my favorite decks I've ever played was a Psychatog deck I brewed up to win an Extended PTQ when I wasn't playing much Magic. To me, that deck stood as the pinnacle of "pure" deckbuilding, with only nine cards that did not draw a card, counter a spell, or tap for mana.
Hey wait! I could do that!
I played this at a few local tournaments, and I wanted to change very little from the list before the Arizona State Championships. To further the lessons from the 2005 Psychatog deck, I was playing some of the best cards in the format in Liliana of the Veil and Snapcaster Mage.
Finally, I had found a deck that took great advantage of one of the spell lands in Innistrad. It's nearly impossible to overstate what Nephalia Drownyard does for this deck. It turns on your backbreaking Visions of Beyond, turns Snapcaster Mage into Demonic Tutor, finds you random flashback cards for pure value, and even works as a very respectable win condition. Many of my control mirrors were completely unfair, simply because I could turn the Drownyards on my opponent after a while, and they wouldn't have time to recoup the value from the cards I milled before they were decked. As a rule, Drownyard yourself until you have 20 cards, take control of the game with all of your card drawing, then finally turn the Drownyards on your opponent if that is your best (or only!) path to victory.
I played this deck at FNM the night before States, agreeing to a top 8 split so everyone could go home and get some sleep. Naturally, I didn't go home, and after chatting with a few friends, we decided to do a Fantasy States Draft. If you are unfamiliar with Fantasy Football (or the Fantasy Pro Tour from "back in the day"), you and a few friends draft teams of players and get points based on the success of your team. For States, six people drafted four players each, and we scored points as follows:
- 3 Points per match win of each team member (Swiss rounds only)
- 1 Additional point if that player defeated a member of another team
- 1 Point per draw
- 15 Points per Top 8 appearance
- 5 Points if your team member defeated a member of another team in the Top 8
- 15 Additional points if that team member won
While this system worked well, I would suggest the following changes:
-1 point for your team member losing to a member of the other team (to counteract the +1 for the other guy winning).
No points for a draw because draws are for suckers. If anything, -1 point for an unintentional draw.
Reduce the Top 8/Winning bonuses to 10 points each.
Disqualification if you are not present to calculate your team member's points, within reason. The whole point of having a team is to cheer them on.
Because we decided to do this at midnight the night before, no phone calls were about to be made, and all information about who was going/what decks they were playing was to be made public. This led to a distinct lack of people drafted from places other than the Tempe/Mesa area, simply because we didn't know who was going to show up and who wasn't. Simply put, this was one of the most fun things about States this year. Doing things in conjunction with a Magic tournament always provides a memorable experience. Nobody in Arizona forgets Tailgate States in 2009.
As for the results of our fantasy draft, there were plenty of interesting stories.
- Blaine Johnson having the ignominy of being the only person to draft someone who didn't show up. Fortunately for Blaine, he was in contention until Christian Nickerson lost in the Top 8.
- Robb Minkus being a consensus steal for Trevor Carr, until it was learned that he had been bitten by a Chinese Werewolf.
- Trevor sabotaging my team by going 0-1 drop. I finished in 5th beating only...
- John Pershon, who had more points himself than his entire fantasy roster. In his defense, he did have to beat one of his team members in the first round.
- Kevin McCoy complaining about not getting drafted all the way until the finals and nearly sabotaging Phimus Pan's team in the process
In the end, Trevor Carr won the fantasy draft, but only after my victory (spoiler alert!) gave Trevor 15 additional points. In reality, the true winner was everyone, as there were far more rooting interests than a normal tournament.
As for the tournament itself, most of my matches were fun and interesting. Except for the Snapcaster mirrors—those just involved me sitting on a bunch of counterspells and milling my opponents out every game. I love putting thirteen 2/2s in to play as much as the next guy, and I had ample opportunity to do so over the course of the day. I especially loved complaining (sarcastically, of course) whenever my opponent would rip a Slagstorm or a Day of Judgment. I also had a pretty nice play of allowing a Sun Titan to resolve, knowing that I could Volition Reins the Liliana that the Titan would return and force him to sacrifice a Sun Titan, leaving me with a Liliana.
The Top 8 and Top 4 matches were considerably memorable.
In the Top 8, I played against Larry Kaufman and his mono-black infect deck. He drew three Inkmoth Nexuses game 1, which I probably can't beat without significant effort straight up, but when infect is his primary source of damage, I had no shot.
In game 2, I had a very difficult time managing all of his creatures once again, but I got a slight reprieve when he declared his attackers without animating his two Inkmoths. I used the slight reprieve to gas up, and eventually I did something that I've never done before. I ultimated Karn Liberated. Wow is that fun! I was basically out of other ways to win, as the Army of the Damned was in the bottom five cards of my library; the Grave Titan had been milled; and my single Drownyard wasn't enough to deck him before I decked myself. I spent a lot of time slow rolling Karn because I wanted to have mana up to counter a potentially lethal Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. Game 3 was much of the same, only I had a bit more breathing room. Karn was ultimated, and I even finished the game by poisoning my opponent. Can't say I was expecting to win games with poison!
The Top 4 match was my first time actually playing against the new Kessig Wolf Run deck. I had built my deck without trying to "beat" this deck specifically, and I had no playtesting experience against it. Regardless, my deck was powerful, and my opponent had a bunch of "answers." In the first game, I cast an Army of the Damned when my opponent had a Wurmcoil Engine and no cards in hand. However, his peeled Garruk, Primal Hunter found him a Beast Within, which allowed him to make a trio of 3/3 tokens after he attacked up to 23 life. This meant the army of tokens was not lethal, and I was forced to make decisions for the first time after sticking an Army of the Damned. I ended up making the wrong one, attacking with one too many Zombies (I attacked with eleven), leaving me dead to a potential Kessig Wolf Run. Well he had it but pumped the unblocked creature instead of one of the blocked creatures, leaving him one short of lethal. Eleven Zombies were plenty lethal the following turn. The second game wasn't nearly as close, but making wrong decisions with a dredge deck's worth of Zombie tokens felt so... wrong.
The finals match was against Kevin McCoy, who handed me my only loss of the tournament during the Swiss in about five minutes. He had previously defeated his nemesis, Gary Wong, in the quarterfinals shortly after trying to dreamcrush Gary (And Phimus's fantasy team!) out of Top 8 in the last round of Swiss (Gary made Top 8 with two losses anyway). Kevin's Mono Red deck did short work of me game 1, as saying I was underprepared for Mono Red game 1 is a slight understatement. However, I was able to use my cheap countermagic and more plentiful removal spells to buy some time until Wurmcoil Engine took over in both games 2 and 3.
Winning certainly felt nice, as I am one of those people who are irrationally excited for States every year. Maybe it's the fact that I've won four times now (I think that's the record, but I might be wrong. If you know someone who has won four or more States*, let me know!), but it's probably the fact that States is the best time to show off your new format deckbuilding skills.
I loved building this deck and loved playing it even more. As for changes I'd make, they are mostly cosmetic. I might move a Wurmcoil Engine to the maindeck to replace the Grave Titan to free up a spot in the sideboard. I would've liked some Skinrenders against a variety of the creature decks. With Jeremy Neeman's victory at Grand Prix Brisbane, opposing Drownyards might be more frequent. I'm certainly not willing to rock a Buried Ruin and an Elixir of Immortality (that would be over-metagaming, my friends), but I'm sure something can be done. Either way, I definitely wanted a 26th land in the deck and found myself digging for lands a little too often. Either way, U/B is the best deck in the format, and I feel my version is fairly close to the best.
Before I leave, I'd like to thank the following people for generally being awesome and doing things like loaning me cards and drafting Magic players.
Among others, people like these are the reason I play Magic. Thank you all.
Thanks for reading,