First, I want to say thank you to you all. If you're reading this, I want to sincerely thank you. In a short month's time, I've gone from simply being a guest writer to being a biweekly columnist to now being a weekly columnist on this site, and it's all because you guys keep checking out my work. That truly means a lot to me, and I'm going to try my hardest to not only bring you strategy content and decklists galore, but I'm also going to try my hardest to also include enjoyable reading material, even if it's not discussing the ins and outs of mulligans and how to build a sideboard. One way or another, you guys will (hopefully) be entertained; I'm going to make sure of it!
Prepping for the Invitational
After consulting my secretary and looking over my schedule (pronounced shhhhedule, for fanciness and whatnot), I've come to realize that I won't be playing much Standard at all until the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Charlotte, NC. I'll also be playing Legacy there too, but my experience with that format is all of one (count ‘em, ONE) match in my entire life, and even then I should have won but punted; turns out being sick and trying to play Dredge while trying to not miss triggers is a tough endeavor for someone who's never played the deck. So I dropped afterwards. So I'll probably just pick up a faceroll deck and cross my fingers. (Not really; but seeing as I don't have any experience, I'll leave any discussion about that format to the experts while I try to learn something about the format.) Now, while Worlds will shape Standard before the Invitational, I find it irresponsible to not prepare before this happens, as you still get invaluable experience.
As for Standard, I have to admit something: I love me some Delver of Secrets. Like, really. So much so that I even started altering my playset of Delvers in the vein of Spy vs. Spy (took me about three hours per side, then an accident occurred while sealing the acrylic paint, and now I've delayed the completion of this project for reasons of pure frustration):
It was pretty sweet (and the back was nice before it got ruined; I couldn't even get a pic before it was lost to the pile of sand in my garage after the sealer was sprayed on and the card fell—depressing indeed), and shows how much I want to play my Delvers. The only other “playset alter” I did was my Lightning Bolts back in the day because I knew I'd play the heck out of them, so it seemed worthwhile. The same applies here; I really wanted a sweet set of Delvers to play, and I realized that a “Delver of Secrets” applies to spies, and obviously there was a great correlation to a flip card. Et voila!
You know what my favorite cards in this list are? (Other than Delvers, of course.)
Vapor Snag allows you to maintain tempo at an incredibly low cost while still “getting in there” for a point of damage. This point is almost always incredibly relevant, as you're just trying to end the game before they can do anything about it, and this puts you a step closer in multiple ways. Imagine a one-mana Searing Blaze that always removed their blocker but only dealt a single point of damage, and you'd have Vapor Snag.
Moltensteel Dragon is insane against the Wolf Run decks out there. They're not going to be dealing you a lot of damage unless they're “going off” with Primeval Titan, so you're almost free to spend as much life as you can spare to make the game end. You know what else is good about this card? It can always trade with Dungrove Elder, a card you otherwise have a tough time dealing with and would usually have to race. I've been incredibly impressed by this card.
As for the deck as a whole; the strategy is incredibly sound. Play a threat, ride it to victory. Well, it and a wave of burn spells. You basically want to have a threat on the board and counter/remove anything they do of relevance (and by relevance I mean anything stopping you from dealing damage). By far, the best opening hand you can see contains a Delver of Secrets, a Mana Leak, Island, Mountain, and Ponder. You can mull to five and still have the nuts. Obviously a second Delver allows for even more ridiculosity (not in any way a made-up word), and at that point all you need to do is monitor your opponent for anything of relevance.
Once you realize that the only thing that they could do that would matter would be to drop a flyer or remove your Delver, you'll have a much better understanding of what you should be countering/burning off. Obviously Vapor Snags are great for removing pesky blockers as well, making the decision of “to remove or not to remove” an incredibly easy answer.
You want to get the opponent on the back foot as quickly as possible. Sure, given infinite time, Wolf Run will wolf-stomp you, but when they're facing down potentially lethal damage on turn 4, it's kind of hard to go 2-4-6 without having to stop and try to deal with what you got going on.
The issue with Caleb's version is that it doesn't have enough early drops. Grim Lavamancer is cute, and you will keep hands with him as your one-drop, but he could be much better served as something else. I still like Lavamancer and could possibly see him in the sideboard, as you are playing a ton of cheap spells, and your graveyard will be full enough for both Snapcaster and Lavamancer both.
Essentially, you need something to be attacking in order for this deck to work. You can't hope to “control” anything with this deck. Your sole purpose is to drop a threat, ride your countermagic/burn to victory. Without a threat, the rest of your plan crumbles. It would be like trying to build a house without a foundation. You'd never finish before the house just collapses. It's similar with all the burn you thought was sweet to see in your hand; your plan will crumble long before you actually burn them out, simply because you'll have to start pointing burn at their guys to stay alive.
While working on this deck, I watched this spicy number on SCGLive (which I watch religiously; while others go to church, I go to SCGLive.com!):
Now that's more like it. Stromkirk Nobles? Don't mind if I do!
This is obviously an updated version of Caleb's list, as evidenced by the manabase, singleton Negate, among other things. The Divinations were cut for Ponders, which I completely agree with. The sideboard is obviously one that's metagame dependent.
I know I've already stated it, but I think it still bears repeating, as people still play this deck wrong: you have to have a threat on the board or you're not actually doing anything. You know how hard it is to assemble 20 points of burn while simultaneously not dying?? It's ridiculously difficult, if not nigh-impossible! Plus, without any kind of board presence, Brimstone Volley looks just plain silly, as the cost-to-damage ratio without morbid is, well, morbid.
However, with that being said, you still want your “shields” to be up starting on turn two. You don't want to tap below two mana the rest of the game unless it's to cast something like Chandra's Phoenix to put your opponent under immense pressure. You'll need to have a feel for the matchup/game at hand in order to make this decision, but as a general rule of thumb, you want to be holding up Mana Leak mana.
With this “constraint” in mind, you need to build your deck around this premise. If I want to have a threat on board and leave my shields up on turn two and beyond, what do I need to play? One-drops, obviously. Snapcaster Mage is also amazing in this regard. Well, Snapcaster is amazing regardless, but that's beside the point. Remember: you can still cast Snapcaster end of turn on turn two just to apply pressure.
There are times this is the correct and only play.
Because, in case you forgot: you have to have a threat on the board or you're not actually doing anything!
Sure, you can hold your Snapcaster in your hand to “live the dream” of flashing back a Mana Leak later on, but if your opponent is still sitting at a pretty 20 life, they have ample time to draw out of the situation, whereas you're multiple turns behind in regards to actually killing them. Remember, the point of this deck is to actually kill people, not control them. Snapcaster still attacks for two a turn, even when he doesn't flash anything back. Remember this, as it's important to break away from the accepted notion of only playing Snapcaster when you can flash something back sometimes.
So with all of this in mind, why do we play a card like Chandra's Phoenix? Pressure. You can really mess with someone's math with a Chandra's Phoenix. All of a sudden, they go from a three- or four-turn clock to now a two- or three-turn clock. You get to induce them into making suboptimal plays simply because they have no idea what's coming. Sure, you'd like to always hold up Mana Leak mana, but there are also times you just want to apply the pressure. Get a feel for the deck and its matchups, and you'll be better prepared to make this decision.
Now that we know a gameplan, let's go about looking at our core cards and see where we want to fill in space.
That's it. That's the core of the deck. While Chandra's Phoenix and Ponder have been really good, I wouldn't go as far as saying they're part of the “core” strategy.
Now, once again, we want to drop a threat and ride it. We also want to keep up the shields on turns two-through-however long it takes to get the job done. We're going to want one-drops. I like how Stromkirk Noble puts the defending player on the back foot. I don't like that I have to run enough red sources to make a turn-one Noble happen.
However, what are my alternatives? Well, I could go heavy on blue and run Phantasmal Bears instead. This is an idea I've actually considered. However, this is really bad in the context of the deck we're playing.
We want to drop a threat and ride it to victory. We have Mana Leak (and presumably Negate) to protect our threat. The issue with Phantasmal Bear is that we can't protect it. The other issue with Phantasmal Bear is that it's also not all that impressive in combat. While Stromkirk can take advantage of the tempo we gained, getting stronger and stronger until it's a force to be reckoned with in combat, Phantasmal Bear just keeps chugging along, waiting on some incidental spell targeting it and sending it back to the grave.
What's our other one-drop blue option in Standard?
If you guess Vedalken Certarch, you'd be correct. Yeah, we're not going there…
So unfortunately, at the expense of our manabase, we're keeping Stromkirk Nobles. We probably don't want the full suit; we want just enough to ensure we hit a one-drop creature in addition to Delver of Secrets, our go-to one-drop.
Additionally, the more I play with Vapor Snag, the more impressed I get. I like the two from both decks, and unless something changes my opinion on that card real soon, I may actually end up going to three.
Right now, I really like Ponder. Well, I really like any card that can set up the top of my deck with a Delver of Secrets in play. I want at least three of these, but the fourth isn't a necessity. This is a slot that can be messed with, though I'm slotting four Ponders right now.
As for Chandra's Phoenix, this card has done nothing but impress me. Flying is a great attribute to have for a creature in Standard right now, and a creature that brings the pain over and over is exactly what this deck wants. Unassuming and easily overlooked, this card will deal, on average, six points of damage or more per game. That's incredible to ask of one card, and it definitely helps your game plan.
Oh, and I want a Moltensteel Dragon. That card is ridiculous.
Here's where I'm at right now with this deck:
The sideboard would contain another Moltensteel Dragon (as you really want that card against Wolf Run) and some Koths for U/B Control, in addition to Arc Trails and the like. You also want some number of Phantasmal Images, as Thrun is a very real card.
The split on Shock and Galvanic Blast seems cute, and for the most part, it is; however, there is literally no downside to running it. It changes absolutely nothing in your game plan or how you cast spells. With Surgical Extraction seeing sideboard play against Snapcaster Mage decks, there is a non-zero benefit to splitting here, and even in the outside case someone brings in Nevermore and wants to name your weakest burn spell, you can get around it by splitting the cards. Will it ever come up? Doubtful. Does it hurt you at all? Not in the least. Why not?
I keep wavering on dropping the Negate for another Shock/Galvanic Blast, but I keep running into enough Elspeth Tirels and Garruk Relentless to want to keep the Negate. Having a fifth counterspell helps when trying to fend out whatever pathetic defense your opponent is trying to mount.
As for the sideboard, you need to realize what you've got to prepare for. Tokens, Control, and Ramp seem to be the order of the day with a smattering of white-based aggro. Against tokens and white-based aggro, I would actually take a strong look at Blasphemous Act, as hitting a second red mana for Slagstorm is a shaky endeavor, and you really don't care about what they're doing until they hit enough creatures for you to be able to cast the ‘Act anyway. Slagstorm is obviously the other option, and it can hit players as well, but I like the consistency of the ‘Act. Remember, if you like neither of these, Arc Trail is really good but can't answer a Hero of Bladehold (which, neither can Slagstorm, another knock on that card).
Against Control, you definitely want some number of Koths. Chandra's Phoenixes are really good here also. Since you're the aggro here, you're probably going to want another Stromkirk Noble as well to really apply the pressure, since your countermagic should lock up the game as long as you're able to stop their answers and kill them before they hit six mana.
Against Wolf Run, you fist pump. This matchup is ridiculously in your favor, depending on the build. Think about Caw-Blade with Stoneforge Mystics against Valakut last season; they got to apply pressure and sit back on countermagic while the Valakut player flopped around helplessly. Same idea here, only you have burn spells to end it even faster. The issue is the Wolf Run Robots deck, popularized by Travis Woo; Glimmerpost is a real card against you. Countering Primeval Titan becomes paramount (whereas against regular Wolf Run decks, you can almost just ignore it, as you should be close to winning regardless of what they fetch up), which definitely changes the way you handle the early game. Just be cognizant of the version you're playing and make sure to burn off the mana dork! (Normally this is bad, but here you're trying to keep them on the back foot, so it's acceptable.)
So there you have it. Is this the optimal build of this deck? Doubt it. Am I enjoying playing it? In the words of Sarah Palin, “You betcha!”
If I don't see you beforehand, I look forward to seeing you guys in Charlotte. I'll do some PTQing before then, but by and large, I don't plan on doing much before then. Thanks for reading; I truly do appreciate you guys!
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