This week has been pretty eye-opening for me as far as Magic is concerned. I didn't play any big tournaments but I did get to play a ton of Magic Online and I've been busy. But we'll get to that in a minute.
With SCG Open: Kansas City in the books we have a lot to look at in Standard and Legacy. Adam Boyd put up quite a show with his take on U/W Blade an archetype that Brian Braun-Duin and a few others have been piloting to solid performances for the last few months.
In Legacy David Thomas showed us that Delver of Secrets is in fact the real deal. He took down the title with his variation on RUG Tempo (I won't call a deck Canadian Threshold when it contains no cards with that mechanic) after a solid performance in the Standard Open where he made it all the way to the Top 4 with Solar Flare.
So what have we learned? We've learned that Delver of Secrets brings something to the table unlike any "true" blue deck we've ever seen before. Since the days of Serendib Efreet blue decks haven't had the ability to really get aggressive while maintaining a controlling core. Delver of Secrets along with famous friends like Tarmogoyf and Snapcaster Mage give you the potential aggressive shell you need to put a beating on your combo or control opponent all while disrupting their mana and spells. But I'm not here to talk about Legacy today. I'm here to talk about Standard. And boy have I been busy.
"But Todd surely you don't have something awesome in store for us?" I beg to differ disgruntled reader!
I know I know this isn't a "real" deck and the core is full of "terrible creatures" but what if the creatures weren't actually terrible? Bear with me for just a moment if you will because I think a lot of people have some poor preconceived notions of what an Illusion deck is. Lords are not what you want to focus on. Cards like Adaptive Automaton and Grand Architect aren't what you're trying to do.
"But what about Phantasmal Dragon?" What about him? What if Phantasmal Dragon wasn't in the 75 at all? What if we decided to play a Legacy-style version of this tempo-based deck that relied on deck manipulation efficient creatures and used its life total as a resource? What if it became a surreal deck just by changing a single card?
Why I'd tell you that you've got yourself a winner.
This deck is much different from the original iteration relying much more on the early game as opposed to clunky spells like Phantasmal Dragon. That guy had his time in the sun but now it's time for another abomination to shine.
When I played the deck in Indianapolis to a 3rd place finish I always felt like I was missing some small piece to the puzzle. Phantasmal Bear was insane but I really wanted to just play eight of them. Well instead of another Phantasmal Bear you get Delver of Secrets. Sure he isn't as easy to flip in Standard as he is in Legacy but he can naturally trigger about 33% of the time. When you're casting Ponder on the first few turns of the game setting him up is a cakewalk.
Let's pretend for just a minute that I'm not suggesting that you play Illusions at your local FNM. Let's sit down and really talk about this deck from an unbiased viewpoint. Let's talk about the mechanics the tempo the resources and the core of what makes this deck tick and why it is so special in a world full of awful decks.
At its heart Illusions is really a Merfolk deck. While not every creature is a Merfolk and Lord of the Unreal doesn't pump all of your creatures you are an aggressive blue deck with solid disruption. What this means is that you have an insane manabase great counterspells deck manipulation and a great curve. But now you have something that Merfolk decks never had in Standard.
With Phyrexian mana spells thrown into the mix your deck can really do just about anything any other aggressive deck can do. Colors are no longer a limiting factor so your manabase is just absurdly on-point in almost every game. While you don't have ways to kill Oblivion Ring or answers to Kessig Wolf Run you do have those options. I just don't think they're relevant enough to include in the deck just yet.
So here's the rub. You are an aggressive deck with easy access to Mana Leak which is something no other deck in the format can boast. The W/u Human deck is playing a set of Mana Leaks but often has trouble casting them since they play about nine sources of blue mana. Islands are just wretched in their deck since very few of their cards have colorless mana symbols in the casting costs.
But Illusions is different. You are already playing a ton of Islands. This makes Mana Leak possibly the best spell in the format easy to play and to great effect. Additionally with how your deck is built you are able to effectively take advantage of Mana Leak more than any other deck in Standard. In its essence Mana Leak is an early game card. If you draw one in the late game then it is usually a dead draw or you need multiple Mana Leaks to counter a single spell. With an aggressive shell you can force your opponents to jam their best spells into Mana Leak often to agonizing results.
Illusions is a deck unlike anything we've seen in Standard in quite some time. There have been blitz aggro decks midrange decks and grindy control decks dominating the format for the last few years. This deck is the essence of aggro-control. With your life total as your biggest resource you're able to play cards like Mental Misstep and Dismember to great effect and you can even reliably flash them back with Snapcaster Mage.
In my opinion blue decks have always lacked an early creature that could put sufficient pressure on the opponent. With Phantasmal Bear Delver of Secrets and Lord of the Unreal this is no longer the case. I kill on the fifth turn with surprising regularity and am able to pick my opponent apart in the process. Thanks to Gitaxian Probe I always know what they're going to do even before they do and I'm able to play my hand out to shape the game how I want it to go. I haven't felt like I've been able to do that with any other deck in a long time but Illusions gives you the tools to lead your opponent into making the decisions you want them to make.
So I know you're going to have a lot of questions. Let's begin by addressing the ones that I feel will be most commonplace.
For starters 21 lands is where I'm sitting at and I'm very happy with the choice. Gitaxian Probe and Ponder allow you to cheat a little bit but you also need to realize that every spell in the deck costs two or less mana to cast. Moorland Haunt's activation is one of the most mana-consuming things your deck can do but Snapcaster Mage into Mana Leak is a bit mana intensive. However if you draw more than four lands you will often feel flooded out. The games where you draw a few too many lands you will often need to rely on Moorland Haunt to dig you out of it. I wouldn't recommend playing more land and might even consider cutting down to 20.
Next up I'm sure you're all wondering "Why Delver of Secrets? He's so bad! He takes forever to flip and he isn't even an Illusion!"
This is a comment I assume many people are considering even before they try the deck out. Delver of Secrets is not your first-turn play every game but he is exactly that: a one-drop. Often you will draw one from Ponder and this will allow you to set up an easy flip. Just make sure you stack your deck correctly. At the very worst Delver of Secrets is a cheap creature that can bring menial beats but occasionally flips into a nearly unbeatable threat. I've never cast a Merfolk of the Pearl Trident but I'm sure that guy never transformed into a flying Wild Nacatl before except when suited up with Unstable Mutation.
Delver of Secrets gives your deck a much more aggressive attitude than the previous incarnation. Often I would keep hands that didn't have a relevant threat until the later turns of the game and ultimately I would end up losing as a result. The problem here is that you often need to hold up for Mana Leak on the second turn but you have a decent number of two-drop creatures. This forces you to wait on your threats. Delver of Secrets sticks before you start holding up for Mana Leak. And if you end up flipping him early in the game he just goes to town. Most decks are playing far too few removal spells at the moment and this is something that we can capitalize on. Even if they have Doom Blade or something similar you will often have a Mana Leak handy or have a window to land another creature.
Phantasmal Bear stands out to me but not for the reason you're thinking. Phantasmal Bear is the only reason to play this deck in the first place. Blue decks have rarely had access to an Isamaru Hound of Konda but Phantasmal Bear is even better than that most of the time. You can curve out with multiples and they even get pumped and hexproof from Lord of the Unreal. Hell I've even cast a Phantasmal Image on the second turn just to copy the little beater. With Gitaxian Probe to scope out their hand you can always figure out the best line of play. Sometimes playing Grizzly Bears is correct. Phantasmal Bear is the best aggressive creature for the deck on the first turn because he allows you to apply pressure while holding up counterspells without the need to "flip." Additionally his synergy with Lord of the Unreal pushes him over the top. The draws where you cast Phantasmal Bear into Lord of the Unreal will feel like you're playing a Legacy deck. Top out the curve with a Phantasmal Image on your Lord of the Unreal and they'll be dead in a hurry.
If you're worried about his "drawback" let me ask you this: What was the last spell an opponent cast against you that would kill a Phantasmal Bear due to its "Illusion" ability that wouldn't already kill it in the first place? People aren't playing a lot of Auras and I don't remember the last time that an Icy Manipulator type of card was relevant. The only card coming to mind off the top of my head is Gut Shot but even most red decks don't play that card and you're still trading for a card. With red decks on the downswing I wouldn't count on seeing too many Gut Shots in your near future making Phantasmal Bear (and Illusions) competitive.
Vapor Snag is a card that I never thought would see play in Standard but I was wrong. Unsummon used to be a favorite of mine back when U/G Madness was insane. Unsummon allowed for some huge tempo swings in the mirror and gave you a cheap way to remove bombs from your path so Wild Mongrel and company could rumble on through. Vapor Snag does one better and brings the beats along with the tempo swing. The single point of life loss from Vapor Snag can matter a lot but you never realize it until you exactsies your opponent with an alpha strike. Cards like Vapor Snag help you regain your control on the field or put you so far ahead that your opponent has one foot in the grave as early as the third turn. Sure there will be some games where your opponent is at a healthy ten life and you need another beater but that's the same with any tempo-based spell.
Next up: Enter the best creature in Standard:
I know I've talked about this guy a lot but Snapcaster Mage is the card that really brings the deck together. He's the glue of the deck and for good reason. Without him I don't think this deck would be viable. But as it stands he's everything you could ever dream out of an efficient blue creature. He's Silvergill Adept. He's Flametongue Kavu. He's Spellstutter Sprite. He's Mystic Snake. You name it. He's even Man-o'-War on occasion! With so many cool interactions due to your high instant/sorcery count he's sure to be the best card you draw at pretty much any point of the game. Phantasmal Image copies him with a startlingly high occurrence but he's exactly what the decks needs to be good.
While some people may argue that the "Illusion" shell isn't necessary my only argument is this: What other creatures could you play instead? It isn't like Standard is flush with Lord of Atlantis and Cursecatcher quality cards. Since when is a 2/2 body for two mana something to scoff at? Blue rarely gets that kind of efficiency and he allows for some absurd draws with Phantasmal Bear. It also goes without saying that casting Phantasmal Image and copying a Lord of the Unreal is one of the strongest starts you can have.
While some might think that Moorland Haunt isn't worth the "splash" I can't even begin to describe its importance in the deck. There are a lot of occasions where you will have to trade off creatures in the early game and you will stabilize only to fall behind because they drew one more creature than you did. Moorland Haunt allows you to apply pressure to the board without overextending and gives you some added reach against any deck where your creatures are destined for death. Moorland Haunt is your only "white" card but its functionality as a land makes it an easy one.
While some people might try adding some white spells to the sideboard I think that it is just a mistake for this version of the deck. With only 21 lands and three of them that don't produce colored mana you can't afford to play a single Plains. Eights sources of a single color isn't enough to justify playing a spell of that color in your deck. Moorland Haunt can't get stuck in your hand. At the very least it taps for a colorless mana! White spells are not where you want to head with the deck and you will regret it.
Timely Reinforcements is not going to win you the game against Mono Red; Oblivion Ring is not something your deck needs; and Steel Sabotage is better for this deck than Revoke Existence. You have almost no reason to play white spells in your deck as they will just lead to awkward draws where you're stuck with things you can't cast. Don't fall into this trap because it is a very easy trap to fall into.
Steel Sabotage is a sweet card that isn't getting a lot of love. It is much better than Revoke Existence for a few reasons (and Divine Offering for that matter). It costs less mana is an instant and allows you to fight off a lethal Inkmoth Nexus in a pinch. In addition to this Steel Sabotage is much better with Snapcaster Mage (i.e. the Best Card in Your Deck) since it costs only a single mana. Steel Sabotage is just a sideboard card that people have forgotten about. With Snapcaster Mage in the format you should always consider your options while deckbuilding since efficiency is the most important part of building with a card like that. If you fill your deck with too many clunky answers Snapcaster Mage becomes much harder to do business with. When everything costs two or less mana you're good to go.
Flashfreeze is a no-brainer. With so many Ramp decks in the field Flashfreeze is just the go-to hoser for the archetype. This time you have a bit of help against the ramping menace in the form of Snapcaster Mage. Rebuying Flashfreeze feels so good against them because you will often have to use Flashfreeze early on to stop a certain large Treefolk from getting in your way.
While Flashfreeze is also good against Mono Red countering their spells is not necessarily what you want to be doing. In all honesty I've given up on that matchup. People are even splashing green for Garruk Relentless and Kessig Wolf Run both of which just ruin your day. Do your best to just dodge this matchup because it is almost impossible to beat. For now Mono Red seems to have fallen off a bit so Illusions is in a very unique position in the metagame.
Gut Shot is an old sideboard favorite of mine and I used it to great effect at SCG Open: Kansas City. Michael Jacob has nearly convinced me to play it maindeck over Mental Misstep but I'm just not quite sold yet. Despise is still a card that is very good against me and I keep playing against all sorts of decks that aren't necessarily "popular" in terms of SCG Open decklists. Gut Shot can do a lot of things and is especially potent against Mono-Black Infect but I would rather have a more versatile card that I can actually "hardcast." The argument isn't necessarily to play one over the other rather to play one over the other in the maindeck. I think I will want access to both against the more aggressive strategies in the format and for now I'll stick with Mental Misstep in the maindeck.
Surgical Extraction is a bit newer for me and I'm not sold on its necessity. I've been pondering the use of Dissipate in its place since it has more potential applications but I do appreciate the ability to stop Sun Titan recursion from Solar Flare. To me that is pretty much the only use I would get out of Surgical Extraction other than the occasional "peek" effect of looking at their hand which I already get in the form of Gitaxian Probe.
The additional copies of Vapor Snag and Dismember are there for added removal against aggressive decks but they have their applications in other matchups as well. For example I wouldn't really classify Infect as an "aggro" deck and more of a midrange deck but it does have some aggressive draws. Dismember is great against them since you don't care about your life total in the least.
The pair of Azure Mages really helps you twofold against the control decks. For one you are able to put another aggressive beater onto the table. Additionally you can just play draw-go with them since you have an engine and they don't. Expect them to have plenty of removal for your guys but sticking a mid-to-late game Azure Mage will usually spell game over for them. His impact isn't greatly felt by your side of the field but the pressure he applies to your opponent can be menacing. And in effect that is exactly what you want from all of your threats.
While this deck is much different from anything you're used to seeing in Standard I assure you it is worth playing with. Picking up the deck and starting from scratch will take some time getting used to. There will be times where it is correct to tap out and others where it is correct to hold up for Mana Leak. It is often difficult to tell those times apart and practice with the deck will help correct that. Don't give up on the deck after a few matches because it is not a powerhouse deck full of haymaker cards. You have no Primeval Titans. You have no Titans at all. You have a bunch of small dorks that gain you incremental tempo and card advantage and you ultimately seal the deal on the back of a Mana Leak or well-timed Dismember.
Standard is ripe with different worthwhile strategies and I'm under the impression that we've only scratched the surface. I think Illusions demonstrates the ability of some of the more "lackluster" cards in the format and really exploits some of the weaknesses that most decks in Standard currently have. The biggest advantage you have over other decks is that you're virtually mono-colored but you have all the power of a two-color deck thanks to Phyrexian mana. While other people struggle with casting their "off-color" spells you have no problem dropping the hammer on them with a Dismember or Gut Shot. If you can disrupt their early game and gain an on-board advantage it isn't usually hard to maintain.
In a lot of ways this deck feels akin to old "Suicide Black" decks. You get to spend life instead of mana which reminds me a lot of cards like Hatred and Flesh Reaver but you get the added benefit of being able to play cards like Mana Leak. If anything I hope this article will help you think about how you build your deck. With Illusions your life is your biggest resource whether that be for Phyrexian spells or racing. Don't be afraid to use it. If you end the game at one life then you've probably done something right.
Thanks for reading.
strong sad on MOL