Cognitive dissonance is key when working on new formats. Sometimes people can become so certain that they are right that they refuse to take in new information that contradicts their stated worldviews and this information becomes an obstacle to overcome instead of an opportunity to learn and grow. Looking at things from a different perspective is entirely valid as is challenging your assumptions - we live in a fact-based reality after all and the human brain merely models that reality. Failure to understand your surroundings and instead believe a convenient fiction may be comforting but falling off a cliff is not. And when it comes to Magic: the Gathering and the Standard metagame there are cliffs everywhere just waiting for hapless explorers to wander by.
A first look at the new Standard Format can be gleaned from the first week's activities. There was both a StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Cincinnati and a 5k in Hartford but just looking at the Top Eight or Top Sixteen decklists will not give you a feel for the metagame as a whole. Just looking at the winners can be downright hazardous to your health in the new format - White Weenie splash Geist of Saint Traft won the Hartford event and R/W/U Control won Cincinnati but just looking at one decklist doesn't tell you that this control deck was the only control deck in the Top Eight at Cincinnati and that the White Weenie deck was the only deck in its Top Eight playing Geist of Saint Traft. It's wrong to make assumptions on what you'll play off of small pieces of information as it takes a much wider approach to assemble a gauntlet. And it takes an even deeper understanding of the underpinnings of the format to know how to build a deck to beat the gauntlet.
There's an old adage that says if you want to understand how a format works look at its mana. That adage - Zvi Mowshowitz's I believe - is in the world of Ravnica an easy way to fall into groupthink and only look at half of what is possible just because it is the half that is easy. I have seen a fair share of greedy control decks in this format many of which start by putting Temple Garden next to Steam Vents and doing some rough math to make it work out in the end somehow but I've also seen a lot of deck designs starting with the simple method of picking a Return to Ravnica dual land and building a deck around it.
This article is intended to take the road less traveled and explore the color combinations that did not get a new dual land in Return to Ravnica.
Without Steam Vents and its brethren the mana is certainly worse. I'm not going to lie about that fact. Things are harder and thus a little less good. But the "less good" is in fact only a little because there are other synergies to be exploited and roads to travel than just the one we so readily find ourselves on. Looking at Standard I think it's easy to say we have a clear 'best spell' in Jace Architect of Thought and a clear 'best creature' in Thragtusk. Controlling strategies very easily can reach for this four-drop/five-drop combo and have a strong credible gameplan. A variety of them can try to do so too - you can build this into a Bant shell just as easily as you can build it into a Raka shell by splashing just enough green for Thragtusk into Todd Anderson's week-one winning decklist.
From my view on the ground in the Hartford 5k Jace + Thragtusk felt downright oppressive and in fact more than half of my opponents were sporting that combination and felt it a very obvious fit to pursue. That's impressive when you realize that while the dual lands may have been easy to find something like sixty players in that room that day registered four copies of a brand-new mythic Planeswalker and thus the drive to play Jace may be even higher as the week-one card availability crunch levels out - Jace Architect of Thought is in fact just that good in a control deck and that fact seemed obvious to all.
In looking around the tables it was obviously a next-level metagame: everyone expected and planned for the first-level metagame of "Zombies is the best deck!" and because of this consensus belief Zombies itself was under-represented. I never faced it once in eight rounds and doing a head-count over the course of the event it was hard to find more than a dozen people sporting the deck. There was no round-one tally of the metagame numbers so I can't give an exact count but just as something like 60 of the 160 were clearly playing Jace/Thragtusk decks of one stripe or another no more than 20 seemed to shuffle up Geralf's Messenger and friends despite the fact that everyone seemed poised to attack this metagame. Solutions to the Jace/Thragtusk “problem” would thus seem to me to be an important thing to square off against when building a deck as well as being conscious of the fact that true control decks most certainly exist Geist of Saint Traft is most definitely still a card in this format and Zombies is the “obvious” aggro deck of choice.
With that in mind let's explore the five guilds not traveled and analyze the half of the metagame that many don't believe exists.
I begin at the beginning for where my thoughts took me. At the end of each of my Dear Azami articles (and yes Cassidy's too - we agreed right away to share a common column footer so people can keep up with both of our extracurricular activities!) there is a link to my Facebook public figure page and in addition to weekly links to Dear Azami articles before they're published I occasionally post other content there. This includes my Week One decklist which was looking into some strong synergies that I was building up in the old Standard format and which clearly profited by the rotation. I built it to lose zero cards in the shift though I only gained one with Return to Ravnica and losing the high-power enemies of Birthing Pod and Delver from the format meant I could finally expect to keep up with the big boys because that old Standard format used to be a pretty rough room.
The deck started with a simple concept of looking into how to get paid for milling oneself and the answer seemed to be "with free flashback spells and undercosted fatties" so I pursued it further. The spoiling of Grisly Salvage got me thinking about the idea originally and I expected to try and play a Mulch/Salvage deck splashing just enough blue somehow to flash back Tracker's Instincts and get paid off for the work I put in but it turns out neither Breeding Pool nor Watery Grave were in Return to Ravnica so I was going to have to go about this the long and hard way: basic Island and basic Forest.
The more I built into the deck the more I liked it. On finding holes in the synergies in the deck I was forced to explore further and discovered Ulvenwald Tracker. I saw a lot of midrange-style decks that didn't necessarily play a ton of spot removal relying on mass removal blockers and planeswalkers to defend the board which meant that the Fight Bear would get to keep working all day long to beat up both sides of a Thragtusk and keep the path clear for the attack phase. Sure decks with spot removal tended to be aggressive and thus could really punish me for killing it but it was also true that these decks tended to have a reasonably limited amount of removal and decks that can easily kill a 1/1 and keep attacking usually had a much harder problem attacking through a 10/10. The deck now had a credible way to interact with the opponent's board giving it an angle of attack it had been lacking when it was just "make big fat things and cross your fingers" and I was able to bring it to a 5-3 record over a long first outing at the Hartford 5k.
The best matchup is actually supposed to be aggressive decks like Zombies which I faced not once in eight rounds - you go over the top of their worst nightmares of how opponents would go over the top against them and can draw for free a seemingly infinite number of copies of Gnaw to the Bone each half of which can be good for twenty or more life. Good luck beating Gnaw to the Bone with your Bump in the Night deck!
For the record blue and green splash white more easily than any other color so if any third color were to be added it would be via Temple Garden and Hallowed Fountain to enable "whatever." The only white card I wanted to enable was Ray of Revelation for handling post-sideboard games against Rest in Peace and I was largely content with using Tracker's Instincts to get closer to drawing Acidic Slime for the problematic enchantment instead and could always just Naturalize if that was what I wanted to do. While a single Ray could handle two copies you had to actually draw one to handle even the first copy or mill past one and have mana up the turn they play it (which is pretty impossible if the turn they play it is "turn two") and that strongly suggested Acidic Slime as the actual answer since it was both easier to dig for and had the additional advantage of not being a dead card if they just didn't have it. I faced off against one opponent out of eight who had any copies at all - and I sideboarded Slimes against any opponent with white mana as a matter of necessity unless I was up a game and had the luxury of exploratory (non-)sideboarding when my back was not up against the wall. For the most part even then I just ran with it because the worst-case scenario is pretty miserable (though winning games with full-priced Ghoultrees can and did happen).
You can play other strategies with blue and green as well - Delver of Secrets into Mayor of Avasbruck in a tempo-based aggro-control shell sounds delightful actually - but this seemed the most powerful and most interesting vector to plumb for the color combination.
- 1 Deadbridge Goliath
- 4 Ghoultree
- 4 Screeching Skaab
- 3 Skaab Ruinator
- 4 Splinterfright
- 3 Thragtusk
- 3 Ulvenwald Tracker
One might ask "Why Gruul when you can Jund?” After all red/green has no dual land but both red and green have black dual lands so the opportunity cost in this case is actually quite low. If you just wanted to play removal solid creatures on a curve then Huntmaster of the Fells into Thragtusks till the cows come home this is an option you can have at the ready with spectacular cards like Dreadbore as supplemental removal Rakdos' Return as anti-control cards Olivia Voldaren to win all creature wars forever and just a wealth of cards designed to grind the game out. What you cannot do in that deck is play one-drop mana sources because Rootbound Crag and Woodland Cemetery don't help with that and you have Overgrown Tomb but no Stomping Ground so your three-color manabase leaves you fundamentally unable to play accelerants besides Farseek. Farseek's worth doing and lets you Huntmaster and Thragtusk faster but there are entirely different approaches you could take if you wanted to. Playing a two-color manabase would allow you to play accelerants and with the choice coming down to playing a schizoid departure from B/G Zombies with a different (or no) tribe or going entirely in a different direction and going off the map with Gruul I wanted to have a look at this other direction.
Starting in a world where the best cards are Jace and Thragtusk the best counter-threat seems to me to be something that can run over either. While Thragtusks of your own are good against aggressive decks so too would Wolfir Silverheart answer aggro by going over the top of their curve by a country mile since he is effectively twelve power for five mana and makes two impossibly-large threats far bigger than the 2/2's and 3/3's your aggro opponents will be generating. Likewise Zealous Conscripts is a compelling card to me since it is the opponents' worst possible scenario in many board positions able to clear the way of an opposing Thragtusk for a turn without leaving a blocker in its stead and erasing that five-point gain with a fresh Thragtusk attack.
If the metagame is playing out in a set specific way - and there is reason to think more people will gravitate to the poles formed by “the best cards” over time - mastering counter-maneuvers that are designed to threaten these opposing Plan A's is the right place to be. Can you play Jace and use his -2 ability against an empty board when your opponent's range of answers includes stealing the Jace and getting two cards back for killing it and even hitting for damage while you're at it? The best cards are made vulnerable by the best card for breaking those plans and the rest of the cards that fit the strategy and color combination aren't bad themselves.
Red has a compelling advantage for your green deck that black can't offer: one-sided mass removal is considerably better than a one-for-one game and cards like Mizzium Mortars and Bonfire of the Damned can kill the opponent's board and let your monsters rumble while black would focus on cheap one-for-one removal. And even if Avacyn's Pilgrim taps for colorless in this deck it's still a mana elf - Boreal Druid was just fine as the second mana elf in its time and the same can be true here. While you could go Naya off Temple Garden a plains for Borderland Ranger and the Pilgrim itself no card strikes me as compelling enough to splash for when Plan A is online again because one-drops limit how far you can deviate from turn one green mana access.
While I am not sold on the fact that this deck is better than a slower grindier cousin with black mana and Thragtusk as its five-drop of choice for what it is trying to do it is well poised to do it thanks to the competing pressures the creatures give to the deck in forcing trades one-for-one with mass removal spells or evading them with some additional value on the side. Wolfir Avenger sidesteps Supreme Verdict nicely in multiple ways and is another card that makes Jace uncomfortable against an otherwise empty board Borderland Ranger gives you value even if it dies and when you're getting to the heavier hitters they're all damaging enough to require a removal spell by themselves - you can't leave one in play and play a planeswalker unless that planeswalker is Tamiyo and Zealous Conscripts is great at fighting through that situation as well by untapping the first threat and adding three power to an attack on the new defensive countermeasure. Evading opposing defenses is where the deck excels and it's not exactly shabby at punishing slow draws while it's at it.
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Huntmaster of the Fells
- 4 Wolfir Avenger
- 2 Wolfir Silverheart
- 4 Zealous Conscripts
And here my real love for Zealous Conscripts comes to light fitting into an aggressive Tribal deck in this case performing the same curve-topping role of crippling defensive plans while also gaining additional synergies from being a Human. Boros thrills and excites me in a way that the winning U/W Humans deck does not by focusing on tribal synergies and disruptive effects while applying the aggression. A Geist of Saint Traft is hard to handle for a control deck and even Jace cannot quite sidestep a lethal backswing Geist thanks to a weird and obscure rules effect that has to do with the token never being declared as an attacker just born attacking. Geist however is actually a point of tribal non-synergy and the card is just being played because it's a good card. Lyev Skyknight is more intriguing to me thanks to the fact that it can detain anything including planeswalkers and thus actually interferes with the continuing defenses of the control deck... but these card choices aren't great against sweepers and the natural response I have been watching is for more and more sweepers to make it into control decks the tendency is there to go to more Terminus more Supreme Verdict and still gum up the ground with Jace and Thragtusk to force you to over-extend into them.
Red however has some awesome abilities to get around these sorts of problems and gives the white deck reach to close the game out with as well as new angles of approach to the planeswalker menaces. Jace does not like putting in all that work just to die to a weak attack and a Kessig Malcontents after all and Jace decks in general definitely do not like facing down Thalia with any consistency. In basic effect this is following the same basic concept as the green/white mono-attack decks but instead of using mana acceleration to speed up threat deployment and Ajani Caller of the Pride to bust through we are relying on tribal synergy to maximize the pressure you put on the opponent with as few cards as possible to commit to it. Yes you deploy all of your threats more slowly but you trade that for an angle of attack that has severe knockout-punch capabilities - Zealous Conscripts creates all the same problems for the opponent in this deck as it does in the Gruul deck though it is not helped along by elves and Borderland Ranger this time. Not every color combination gets to play an additional twelve cards focusing just on making mana to help you get to five on your curve after all but even without that acceleration and bonus mana consistency it is still a game-changer even when late to the party.
There is major appeal to starting the game off with Champion of the Parish dropping Thalia on turn two to keep the opponent off-tempo and attack for two then follow it up with Silverblade Paladin on turn three to soulbond with the Champion attacking for another eight that turn and having twelve damage on the backswing for lethal on turn four with a disruptive effect built in. Any color combination of white decks can do that after all.
What you can do with each card is strongly amplified based on these tribal synergies and the mix of abilities you get to blend together as Precinct Captain is very good at building a clogged-up board and combines nastily with Sublime Archangel just by itself. Even the less-impressive beaters like Loyal Cathar give you value against opponents who are trying to grind you out or let you build a considerable force with fewer cards invested since you get to keep something in the face of removal and that extra body back to attack again is very important even if it doesn't count as a Human the second time. The only nitpick is that Precinct Captain's tokens aren't Humans just Soldiers to make aggro Champion draws that much more ridiculous and Kessig Malcontents potentially a Fireball in disguise but it doesn't hurt that you get to make up for it by playing Bonfire of the Damned as an actual Fireball and have no problems with the effect it is likely to have when just cast for three or five mana the 'hard way' against opposing creature decks.
I would put this as the sneakiest and stealthiest of the five deck options I'm to list here as I didn't even see the potential interactions until I started working with the Gruul deck and really chasing what you can do with an off-balance opponent and a Zealous Conscripts. And most people won't look at Kessig Malcontents with a straight face and say "I would like to play this card" when talking about 60-card decks but hey if Jace is punishing attack decks for playing smaller-sized creatures you need to be willing to look for unconventional ways to keep Jace off the table and Kessig Malcontents is most certainly that.
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 3 Dryad Militant
- 4 Kessig Malcontents
- 4 Loyal Cathar
- 4 Precinct Captain
- 3 Silverblade Paladin
- 4 Sublime Archangel
- 3 Zealous Conscripts
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Orzhov could connect easily to a single third color in that both could attach with green via Overgrown Tomb and Temple Garden but given the token-based strategy that is being pursued there is no evident reason for doing so – that is not green's forte as the green token-making besides Garruk Relentless focuses on making one large token not several tokens to pump with cards like Intangible Virtue. Efforts to pursue token-making for fun and profit have instead been going Esper and seeking cards with the word 'Talrand' on them in order to get where they want to be but whether there is enough going on there to reward them for making their mana a pain in the butt has not been effectively answered. One of the very best cards in a token-based deck is Vault of the Archangel which is difficult to fit in any considerable numbers in a three-color deck; Junk could do it (for at least a copy or two) because it has eight Ravnica duals while Esper has a harder time of it (but is where the enthusiasm seems to be going). Always drawing that card is amazing enough that most of the gains for increased spell quality erode in the face of losing ready access to the Vault as part of your Plan A.
With this commitment to black and white you gain full use of both Lingering Souls and Sorin Lord of Innistrad the latter of whom has been sorely under-represented in Standard so far due to the difficulty of making the mana work around him. It is very easy to forget just how good the mana is in Standard even without Return to Ravnica adding dual lands and Guildgates to the list of options - every color combination has a true dual land in the M13/Innistrad mould and every color combination can supplement this with either Cavern of Souls (presuming tribal access) or Evolving Wilds (if they can accept the bit of slowdown involved) or both if they want to as seen in the look at Boros as an option above. Being spell-based a token strategy can't go with tribal colored mana via Cavern of Souls but it also is light on the one-drops so Evolving Wilds is an actually helpful addition rather than a roadblock you try to work your best around.
Intangible Virtue was good enough to get itself banned for Innistrad Block Constructed though admittedly that choice looks very silly in retrospect with the high-powered but not-very-deep format with everyone playing Jund in an uninteresting deeply repetitive tournament. Sorin has the benefit of being both a source of tokens and a means to pump their power making him one-stop-shopping for a strategy of this sort and meaning there are enough credible ways to increase a token creature's power that we don't have to resort to the fragile and kind-of-loose Phantom General. If we're going to rely on a creature surviving after all we'd rather commit to a Bloodline Keeper than an Anthem effect as token-makers get more value the longer they live and don't become catastrophically worse when they die while a Phantom General is always one Ultimate Price away from you getting blown out in combat. With Sorin and Virtue however you'll always draw one and often draw two meaning you can commit to Krenko's Command - I mean
Gather the Townsfolk” - with a straight face.
Committing to a theme doesn't require you to play no real creatures however it just limits which ones you'll find valuable. Precinct Captain is almost Bitterblossom-level when he's online and Bloodline Keeper is clearly amazing if it survives. Between it and Sorin you can comfortably plan for the fact that your draws will always have a four-drop token-maker and thus we're paid back for playing a real number of lands. How to convert those lands into other things is always tricky but Vault of the Archangel pays you back for making your first five land-drops and it may be 'too cute' but Pack Rat gives you the option to cash in any of your lands for a spell-like effect later in the game... the chances are entirely possible that it shouldn't be a four-of but it scales pretty naturally with other copies of itself so I consider it a slightly-loose four-of but no looser than playing Gather the Townsfolk in a sixty-card deck. This variability in the power of your cards can be made up for by the fact that there will be some games you just miracle an Entreat the Angels and it is nowhere near close especially if you do so with an Intangible Virtue letting you play both offense and defense at the same time.
Ultimately the thing it is lacking is draw consistency and it would really love a Ponder effect... but you can't play one of those in Standard these days anyway so I don't see splashing for another color as especially valid because no matter what color you add you aren't going to meaningfully increase your quantity of what the deck wants just increase the things you could have if you wanted to (and affect your ability to draw the right colored mana at any given time while you're at it). In some regards that is what the Pack Rats help with since they can help re-balance your draws by trading the wrong type of thing for a token creature instead and you can even go all-in on Rats if it's a later-game play... if you have a few cards in hand a Pack Rat on turn five makes a copy at end of turn then lets you untap attack and make two more copies before you land the blow turning a turn-five 1/1 into sixteen power eight of which is already attacking. You can't get a blue draw-filtering effect in this format no matter how much you might want it you can just build in redundancies after-the-fact around the cards you have drawn and between Pack Rat Entreat the Angels and Vault of the Archangel you have a lot of play available to you with excess lands already.
House Dimir is the “sneaky” one of this list of exercises. After all blue-black is traditionally looked at as a control color combination so you'd imagine that a blue-black color combination would default to a control deck. In this case the arguments that drew me towards thinking about the color combination were not about the sweet range of control spells you could have but “how do you build a credible Zombies deck that can stand up to a Thragtusk control deck?” and reaching an unanticipated answer. Thragtusk is a highly effective blocker. Zombie decks in their current design are solid against a single Thragtusk but really start to break down in the face of draws that include two copies or are preceded by a Jace Architect of Thought. Unfortunately that's where I see the format going as a matter of natural course - the gravity of the format is drawing more people to these clear “best cards” in pursuit of game wins both against aggressive decks and other control decks. After all Jace is good at protecting himself and you but also has a perfectly credible card-drawing side to him for the control mirror while Thragtusk is both excellent defender and excellent threat once you get past the early stages of the game.
Watching Zombie decks play against Thragtusk decks and removal-heavy blue control engines featuring not just Terminus but also Supreme Verdict and (at times) Bonfire of the Damned the best draws all seemed to involve multiple copies of Blood Artist to really punish the opponent for their sweeper effects. While one Blood Artist doesn't stack up too neatly against a Thragtusk two copies can quickly erode the bounce back into the game that it intended to build for them and you can play more Blood Artists if you try very very hard to do so.
Once upon a time we considered blue and black an adequate Zombie color together simply for Diregraf Captain and while there are clear draws for Lotleth Troll or Falkenrath Aristocrat as your hard-to-handle aggressive beaters these decks end up being very straightforward with just dudes and removal (and sometime that removal targets opponents' faces not just their men). You can of course play Blood Artist in either of these... but you can't play Diregraf Captain in them and in my exploration of these sorts of grind-y creature-based brawls the extra size pump and extra Blood Artist effect made it very hard for opponents to actually stabilize the board using creatures and forces them to take a whole lot of pain for using Wrath effects though unfortunately Terminus is still a workaround to these best-laid plans and a pain in the butt while you're trying to punish sweepers by defying the rules of engagement.
Sticking to blue just for creatures and no spells brings us roughly to where the black-green Zombie deck is though since we're actually sticking to tribal themes and trying to build somewhat higher up on the mana curve we're avoiding the Devils to overwhelm the opponent with triple one-drop draws. Mid-game 2/2's that don't increase their stats don't help the game-plan so much as the overlapping protections of Zombie death insurance since you're not just trying to draw a better aggressive curve than the opponent you're trying to build a better board than them and use this fact to consistently push for damage and punish their resources.
There's another in-tribe card you can use to similar effect in that Grimgrin Corpse-Born is a bit of a laugh until you dominate someone's board with the free removal effect every turn. Sometimes you can potentially use the free sacrifice effect with Gravecrawler to semi-Fireball an opponent out either with Blood Artist / Diregraf Captain triggers or even just with the huge-size effect but that's no more special than playing Bloodthrone Vampire. Grimgrin costs a ton more for that privilege making it inefficient at just that role so we have to look at it from the perspective of what we gain for adding a monster fattie to our otherwise focused fast aggro deck. Facing off against Thragtusks gives a credible reason to want to go over-the-top and where black-red Zombies does that by flying over with Falkenrath Aristocrat black-blue can go a little cute and machine-gun blockers no matter how sizable they are by playing a card that is not in fact legal only in Commander.
I'm not just trying to be goofy here; I know I'm the Dear Azami guy after all but I've played more than my fair share of commanders in Constructed formats - last Modern PTQ season saw me playing Omnath Locus of Mana with a straight face and an amusing plan and I can verify at this point in the metagame development that slower green decks trying to take on a more controlling stance really dislike facing off against Grimgrin and Grimgrin can even be played onto an empty board after a Wrath effect and kill either Jace or Tamiyo in one shot just by casting any creature in your hand... or out of your graveyard as the case may be. Not many threats by themselves are credible against Tamiyo and the Jace-Tamiyo tag-team is something that will become more ubiquitous over time rather than less so this odd drawback provides a strange benefit that control decks won't like.
Since we're focusing on making control decks unhappy Duress seems excellent though it's far from perfect as the Terminus you have to worry about is never the Terminus in their hand anyway. Blunting removal effects is still well worth doing as is disrupting defensive countermeasures so the spell that is able to throw an opponent's game off of either Pillar of Flame or Jace Architect of Thought is the one I would rather see game one while Appetite for Brains has its uses as a sideboard card and is more appropriate for decks trying to defend with green fat instead of spells. This deck is somewhat biased against the Zombie mirror match though Blood Artists are very good in it and more zombies are better than more removal spells just as a general matter of course so we need to be able to bring in focused mirror-match cards like Skirsdag High Priest and must build them into the sideboard even if you can go all day long without ever playing against a Zombie deck... when you're playing one yourself you're not really allowed to think anyone else who'd do it is crazy after all.
- 4 Blood Artist
- 4 Diregraf Captain
- 4 Diregraf Ghoul
- 4 Geralf's Messenger
- 4 Gravecrawler
- 4 Highborn Ghoul
- 2 Grimgrin, Corpse-Born
Post-Script: Regretting Not Travelling The Roads Not Travelled
One would think I would take my own advice and not be so hidebound to what seemed like a good idea of a deck to play at States out of mere convenience of convention. I got enthusiastic about a Blue/Red Delver list I found compelling and brought it to States to a better-than-50% (might-as-well-have-slept-in) finish. I felt confident that I understood the local area metagame I could expect since there seemed to be strong reactions to the Hartford 5k and in fact that deck seemed like a cakewalk vulnerable as it was to Bonfires and abusive sideboard cards. I really wanted to throw my pursuit into a Watery Grave control deck despite Watery Grave not being a card that currently existed in Standard and rather than spend the days before States tuning the deck I wanted to pursue (and making sure I knew where I was borrowing my Jaces from!) I settled for the idea I wanted to be the best instead of the one I felt actually was the best for me to pursue.
Seeing an article from Mike Flores on the day before the tournament gave me a point of comparison between what I wanted to do and what he was pursuing and I noted the difference with some skepticism. He really didn't seem to have enough lands in his deck to do what he was aiming for and appeared to have missed the missing link I'd discovered that allowed the deck to present the right number of threats still due to the overlap between threat and land. While he insisted on-site that he always hit is sixth land drop on turn six and thus was clearly fine for lands the games where you have to dig to make your drops on time are games where you aren't interacting in the early turns of the game and it appeared to be an unnecessary bias towards dominating control decks at the expense of withstanding aggressive draws – playing enough lands in your deck to operate comfortably is key after all when you're under pressure. Pressure is in fact what Hellion Crucible allows you to keep steadily threatening keeping planeswalkers off-balance and offering surprise blocks from a 4/4 token out of nowhere so it fit both sides of the tempo needs you could imagine with this tempo deck.
My love affair for Zealous Conscripts continued and was well rewarded as I killed many an opponent with the additional angles Conscripts provided and unlike Mike's deck I found room for some Runechanter's Pikes and found them quite potent. These two cards even teamed up for an out-of-the-blue kill in one game with the Conscripts untapping a land to get the vital second mana for equipping then rumbled in for nine to deal a lethal blow as my follow-up to the opponent's Supreme Verdict. My comfort with the deck was not all there though since I never managed to make it to a warm-up tournament over the week to get comfortable with the deck under simulated stress conditions and that lack of comfort led to a misstep against Zombies that left me out of contention early on wishing I had pursued Watery Grave instead of Steam Vents.
The road I wanted to pursue comes from the desire to play more planeswalkers in my control deck and build a consistent anti-aggro shell that could use those planeswalkers both to its own defense and to out-compete a fellow control deck since I would just have more of the things to control the board with. Trying to make the numbers work out however without Watery Grave to allow for Mutilate to be a credible mass removal spell proved impossible and the ease of splashing lightly for a third color suggested red would be an easy fit without having to over-commit since a light splash wouldn't force me into truly uncomfortable situations with too many lands coming into play tapped or the color balances falling off wrong.
Sometimes you have to remain confident with your thesis – missing dual lands do not mean you have to abandon a core color pairing – and pursue the line of thought you find most interesting with confidence that you aren't wrong just because it's hard. Moving forward into the new realm of Ravnica as we continue to explore this Standard format this is where I'm at (and wish I was this past weekend so perhaps I'd find myself in the finals of New York States as I was two years ago rather than out by round four as I was last year as well):
May the willingness to explore the roads others have not yet taken embolden you in your pursuits.
-- Sean McKeown