It had been a long time since I was as excited for a tournament as I was for SCG Open Series: Cincinnati last weekend. It was a brand new format and I felt very confident about my Standard deck choice. In addition I got to play my favorite Legacy archetype Stoneblade with a few new cards like Detention Sphere and Supreme Verdict. With a brand new Standard and a variety of Legacy playable cards in Return to Ravnica to hopefully shake up the format this month is simply the best time to be a Magic player. Until things settle down a bit you can get away with playing whatever powerful strategy you want to.
At Cincinnati I played a U/W/R Control deck similar to the one played by Gerry Thompson Brad Nelson and Todd Anderson. Todd ended up taking down the tournament with their list and mine wasn't far off.
From the moment they first printed planeswalkers in Lorwyn I have always loved playing tap-out planeswalker control decks. They aren't always viable in Standard but when they are playing walkers is all I want to be doing. My favorite Standard deck of all time is the U/W tap-out control deck from a few years back that played Jace the Mind Sculptor Elspeth Knight-Errant and Gideon Jura alongside Wrath effects and card draw. It was slow and miserable to play against and I loved everything about it.
It's no surprise then that the U/W/R deck is right up my alley. It has everything I want in a deck—planeswalkers card draw and board sweeps—but as much as I like it I didn't start out on that archetype. If you flashback to a few weeks ago—which seems like an eternity in MTG time—I had no real clue what deck I wanted to play in Cincinnati. I didn't particularly want to play Zombies our perceived best deck but if I couldn't find a deck to beat it then I would end up joining the undead masses.
Instead of craving brains I craved value. The two archetypes I was mostly focusing on included a G/W midrange deck with Trostani Thragtusk Restoration Angel and friends and a very similarly themed Junk (G/W/B) midrange deck again featuring Thragtusk and Restoration Angel alongside Lingering Souls and that planeswalker everyone has forgotten about: Sorin Lord of Innistrad.
Both decks were built with the idea of beating Zombies in mind. The decks were fine and I was doing pretty well in beating Zombies a decent percentage of the time but I felt like something was still lacking. While beating Zombies was well and good could either of these decks beat anything else? I really had no idea and I also had no way of knowing because I had no clue what kind of random decks would show up to the party in Cincy.
I was pretty directionless but two weeks ago that all changed. Todd and I filmed a playtesting session that should be posted today. It pitted an Esper Control deck I built against Todd's most aggressive Zombie list. I badly wanted to play Jace and Tamiyo in a control shell but I struggled to put the puzzle pieces together. I feel like I can often identify good synergies and strategies and figure out what kind of deck is going to be good against a perceived metagame but I'm not always capable of actually building a tuned version of that deck.
I knew I wanted to play Augur of Bolas and Vampire Nighthawk to provide early defense against aggressive swarm strategies like Zombies. I wanted my mid game to consist of Jace Tamiyo and Curse of Death's Hold. I wanted Terminus to be my sweeper of choice because of how poorly Supreme Verdict matches up against creatures like Gravecrawler Lotleth Troll Geralf's Messenger and Falkenrath Aristocrat. I would have liked to play Angel of Serenity as my finisher but triple white is an extremely restrictive cost when you're trying to play Vampire Nighthawk Jace Tamiyo and Curse of Death's Hold on time.
Eventually I settled on an easier to cast seven-drop that's more of a hands-on kind of guy. I know he's my personal favorite 3/5 flying double striking lifelink creature of all time and I can only hope he will be yours as well.
Going into the playtest session I was not confident. I felt like Todd was going to take me out behind the toolshed and give me a solid whipping the likes I hadn't seen since I was a young rascal. I was just praying I could at least make it competitive.
To my surprise things went a lot better for me than expected. I was pretty impressed that the pile of Esper Control cards was able to hang with the brutal fast pace the Zombie deck could present.
Tamiyo and Jace were both really awesome and Terminus into a finisher was able to put a number on the Zombie deck. After our match was done the first thing I did was cut Ultimate Prices and go up to four copies of Azorius Charm. That card was quite effective to say the least. Putting a guy on top was a great answer to pretty much any threat. Double Rancored Gravecrawler? Get out of here. Falkenrath Aristocrat? On top. Solo Diregraf Ghoul? It's gonna suck to draw that again.
Snapcaster Mage provides the rinse and repeat.
After that swap I began testing against an endless rank of the deadly Zombie brews that resident master Bradley Nelson had come up with. Brad much like I had originally thought was very skeptical that any kind of a control deck could hang with Zombies but after some repeated beatings he quickly became a believer in the therapeutic power of Terminus.
It feels so good going Terminasty on a board of Messengers and Gravecrawlers and Lotleth Trolls. Why not get rid of the dregs then mangle them with a real creature? I wanted to bereave my opponents. I wanted to be Reavering my opponents.
Once Brad was on board with planeswalkers and Terminus he eventually came up with the idea for U/W/R that we both really liked and he worked on building and testing that. Although I initially disagreed with a lot of his card choices I was eventually won over and played a list very near to his 75. Based on the vibe I had gotten from Twitter and Facebook in the week leading up to the event I expected a lot of people to be on control decks and skewed my deck a bit to compensate. For that reason I packed a miser's Devil's Play main and a very heavy anti-control sideboard and I was glad I did since I played against controlling decks in over half of my rounds. Many an opponent fell victim to Devil's Play on that day.
One poor gentleman took eighteen from a Devil's Play over two turns. In the battle between our two control decks he definitely got out Played.
I ended up going 7-2 losing to a Naya Ramp deck and a Bant Ramp deck. Both matches felt very winnable—I'd go so far as to say favorable—but they didn't come together for me. The one match on the day I played that seemed actively bad was against a Mono Red deck. Thanks to some help from Geist of Saint Traft and the otherwise unused lifelink ability on Azorius Charm I was able to barely squeak out wins in games 2 and 3.
All told I loved the deck and had a blast playing it.
Did I get to do some sweet things? Hell yes I did. In round 1 I ultimated a Tamiyo and followed it up by casting Jace Memory Adept and using his -0 ability targeting myself. That felt pretty good.
Did I make some boneheaded mistakes? You can bet your sweet ass I did. In round 2 my opponent slammed a Detention Sphere on my Tamiyo. Feeling left out I decided to Detention Sphere his Detention Sphere to get my Tamiyo back. My opponent had to kindly instruct me to read my own cards and I found myself paying 1UW to do nothing.
Not to be outdone I decided to one up my own mistake in game 2 of the same round. With a sizeable board advantage my opponent ripped a Supreme Verdict to take care of my Geist of Saint Traft. Sensing blood I jumped in for the kill. "I'll Snap/Negate that" I said slamming a Snapcaster Mage in play and moving my Negate to the exile zone. My opponent calmly informed me that Supreme Verdict can't be countered. I then did what any respectable Magic player would do. I used a calm graceful sweeping motion to move my Geist of Saint Traft and Snapcaster Mage into the graveyard and passed the turn.
I easily won the round 2-0. There is no justice.
Moving forward I think the deck really needs some life gain to combat super aggressive reach-based aggro decks like Mono Red and Joe Bernal's B/R Zombies. You could get janky with cards like Rhox Faithmender. The easy solution though is to just play Thragtusk.
Since the red splash in the deck is basically solely for Pillar of Flame I think it's reasonable to cut it entirely and add a different color like green. Green gives you access to Thragtusk and other random beasts with the upside of gaining life through cards like Centaur Healer. In tandem with Restoration Angel the sky (or roughly 40) is the limit with how high your life total can go.
Playing those creatures also makes Angel of Serenity much better by providing bodies to exile with her ability and get back if she dies. I think Angel of Serenity is a much stronger finisher than Entreat the Angels. While it has a lower upside than a timely miracle with Entreat she has an all-around much more consistent and impactful presence on the board. With that being said I don't think Angel of Serenity is that great in the U/W/R deck because Snapcaster Mage is the only creature to return. However I think it would be awesome in a Bant deck because you can get back Thragtusks Restoration Angels and Centaur Healers to make her all-around stronger.
It's also entirely possible that you can support playing four colors using cards like Farseek Chromatic Lantern and various Keyrunes to fix your mana and allow you to play Pillar of Flame Thragtusk and the powerful U/W control cards. As history has shown us you can't possibly go wrong with a clunky four-color control list splashing for Thragtusk.
Greed occasionally pays.
But that's enough about Standard for now. Cincinnati also featured a Legacy tournament won by Caleb Durward playing a really awesome U/B planeswalker
cube control deck. His list seems a little weak to various combo decks but looks like it has the right tools to grind out a win in any fair matchup. The Legacy metagame right now seems to be mostly comprised of fair decks. Other than Show and Tell which has drastically gone down in popularity there aren't many combo decks seeing extensive play.
It's the perfect time to play a powerful planeswalker deck. Or you know you could just play something sweet like Stoneforge Mystic.
Much like Standard I went X-2 losing my win and in against Chris Andersen playing an innovative U/G Enchantress deck that debuted on Magic Online a few months back. That deck is very powerful and I'd recommend trying it out if slow grindy combo decks are your sort of thing.
My goal in the tournament was to test out Supreme Verdict and Detention Sphere to see how well I liked them. Ultimately I think both cards deserve a spot in the 75 in some capacity but I do want the second Engineered Explosives main over the Detention Sphere. Unlike the SCG Invitational where Explosives underperformed it was quite excellent every time I drew it in this tournament and I consistently wished I had a second copy.
Supreme Verdict was awesome out of the sideboard sweeping away Goblins and Merfolk and Kira Great-Glass Spinners alike.
Outside of cutting the maindeck Detention Sphere for another Engineered Explosives and wanting to swap the numbers on Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize I was quite happy with where my list ended up.*
And on that note I see a lot of Stoneblade lists floating around that are mostly similar but run some card choices I don't agree with so I'd like to mention a few key differences between my Stoneblade list and the average list I see and explain why I prefer my version.
A lot of lists play 23 land…or less. I'm here to tell you to play 24 land and no fewer.
I cannot stress enough how playing too few lands will punish you. Just because Brainstorm lets you cheat a bit on mana costs doesn't mean you can get super greedy and play these 22-land mana bases and still expect to win games where your opponent Wastelands you a few times.
From time to time I've shaved down to 23 land for a tournament. Every time I did so I lost multiple games to stalling on one or two land or getting savagely Wastelanded out of a game. Lesson learned. When your 23rd and 24th lands are something like Mishra's Factory that can double as a creature and is good in almost every single matchup there are very few reasons to skimp on your land count.
Playing 24 land and Mishra's Factory also makes your RUG matchup a breeze. Half of what the RUG deck is trying to do is just mana screw you and punish you for low land counts. If you hit every land drop against them and play cards like Mishra's Factory and Vendilion Clique to deal with Nimble Mongoose it's actually pretty easy to win.
Finally don't play Wasteland. You want more lands in play than almost any other deck in the format. It's super rare that you activate Wasteland except in situations late in the game when you're already ahead. Your opponent almost always wants to Wasteland you to keep you off of Jaces and Batterskulls so using it on them is often just furthering their game plan against you.
This card is awesome right now in the format. I can think of very few matchups where I don't want Vendilion Clique. Against RUG Delver this is typically your best creature as it cycles a bad card in your hand and trades with Nimble Mongoose and Delver. Against control and combo decks it's an aggressive threat that gives you perfect information and disruption all at instant speed. Against creature decks it's an evasive creature to put a Jitte on and start whittling away at their dudes and is a great way to cycle cards that may be dead like Force of Will and Spell Pierce in hopes of drawing better ones like Swords to Plowshares.
I would play a minimum of two and recommend playing three. To make room I'd suggest trimming on Spell Pierce which isn't particularly good right now unless we see a resurgence of spell-based combo decks.
Sideboard Cabal Therapy and Lingering Souls Package
Cabal Therapy is absolutely backbreaking against most control and combo decks. Alongside cards like Vendilion Clique Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek it's very easy to know at least one card in your opponent's hand. After you Therapy them the first time and hopefully hit what you know you then have perfect information to hit the second time. Spent Stoneforge Mystics Snapcaster Mages and Lingering Souls tokens make perfect fodder for the flashback.
I have used Cabal Therapy in the last few tournaments to absolutely ravage my opponent's hands on more than one occasion and it has been so good for me that I wonder why I wasn't playing it before.
Lingering Souls in addition to being a great combo with Cabal Therapy also provides you with excellent value in grindy matchups like U/W Control the mirror match RUG Delver and a variety of other decks. These cards give you the flexibility to transform post-board into a super disruptive deck against whatever game plan your opponent is on.
I can't imagine playing a Stoneblade list without this awesome sideboard package and I'll leave it at that.
Going back to Standard at the start of this article I mentioned that I started out with G/W and Junk midrange decks before I went all-in on control. If there is one thing that Cincinnati taught me it's that planeswalkers are very powerful in Standard right now.
Thankfully U/W doesn't have the only planeswalkers.
This is a pretty rough list. The general goal is to curve 1->3->5 and play Garruk or Thragtusk on turn 3. Against control decks the goal is to overwhelm them with planeswalkers and against beatdown decks you want to overwhelm them with the value and defensive capabilities of Centaur Healer Restoration Angel Thragtusk and the like.
I think Sorin is underrated right now. He creates a steady stream of creatures or emblems to effectively pressure planeswalkers and the threat of going ultimate against a Jace/Tamiyo deck ensures they are forced to answer him not just the creatures he generates. Against a beatdown deck he can provide an effective stream of chump blockers that gain life in the process. He seems weak against Rancor but you can just side him out in those matchups.
It's possible that Liliana of the Veil and Garruk Relentless both deserve a spot somewhere and the deck may demand more early game plays like Abrupt Decay or Strangleroot Geist for games where you don't have a turn 1 mana dork. At any rate I can't wait to give this deck a try this week and see how to best improve it from here. I know that there is a competitive shell somewhere in these cards and I'm just hoping to put it all together.
I really wish I could go to SCG Open Series: Providence this weekend and play more Magic. Standard and Legacy are both very exciting right now and I simply cannot get enough of it. Alas I can't say it's worth the twelve-hour drive so I'll have to content myself with waiting until Indianapolis in two weeks. Who knows what sweet brews or monstrosities of deck design will be tearing up Standard by that point? I don't know but I can't wait to find out.
Thanks for reading
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