Sullivan Library - Back to the Pro-Tour: Baron Harkonnen in Time Spiral Block
Any of you who have come very close to winning a Pro Tour Qualifier, only to not quite make it, know that special heartbreak that comes with that experience. PTQs vary in size, but around here, they tend to be over a hundred to nearly two hundred people, on average. In a way, it is almost easier to scrub out than to push through eight rounds of Swiss, and then lose it somewhere in the Top 8.
I qualified this last weekend at the Chicago PTQ. It's been a few years since I last qualified, way back when, with the first tournament proven Scepter-Chant deck at an Extended PTQ in Minneapolis. This time around, it was a pretty sweet feeling. I've come oh so close to so many Qs over the last couple of years, only to have it fall out at some point in the Top 8. Even at the Grand Prix in Columbus, my own play mistake took me from a Top 32 qualifying slot to just under that, at 40th.
For the PTQ, I chose a long-loved archetype that I first developed about ten years ago, “The Baron.” The Baron (or Baron Harkonnen) is a Blue control deck that packs a set of three Gaea's Blessing to help recur the appropriate elements of the deck in any particular matchup. For reference, here is the original list of the Baron, an Extended deck made way the hell back in 1997. Please excuse the roughness of the list a little… I was certainly less polished as a deckbuilder back then, as was the whole concept of deckbuilding in general.
PTQ Fort Wayne, IN – Adrian Sullivan 1st (1997 – For Rome)
The Baron Harkonnen
4 Wall of Roots
2 Serrated Arrows
2 Nevinyrral's Disk
2 Control Magic
2 Hail Storm
3 Gaea's Blessing
2 Whispers of the Muse
2 Sylvan Library
4 Force of Will
3 Natural Spring
1 Splintering Wind
1 Mahamoti Djinn (The Baron)
3 Thawing Glaciers
4 Tropical Island
For the most recent Extended Qualifier season, I updated the deck, but was only able to claim the bridesmaid slot: 2nd Place.
PTQ Cleveland, OH – Adrian Sullivan 2nd (2007 – For Yokohama)
Five Color Baron
4 Polluted Delta
1 Flooded Strand
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Steam Vents
2 Watery Grave
4 Breeding Pool
2 Dreadship Reef
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Urza's Factory
This list was very good, but it was probably short a Sensei's Divining Top. I got close a number of times with the list, but never quite made it.
My friend I@n DeGraff (of Team ICBM fame) was describing the nature of how the deck worked recently to his ICBM teammate, Dave Carhart, and they gave me an entirely new insight into how my deck works.
“Ah,” said Dave, “The Baron is actually a deck with a kind of A.I. built into it!”
Wow. I had never conceived of it as such, but that is exactly what the Baron is about. Mike Flores once wrote on the Sideboard that captured my initial thoughts on my deck: “In 1998, Eric Taylor wrote that there were almost no new deck ideas. He said that there were very few new actual decks since the inception of competitive Magic, the first of which was Adrian Sullivan's Baron Harkonnen, which would later become the inspiration for polychromatic control decks such as Donais U5C and any U/G list based on Gaea's Blessing, library manipulation, and Oath of Druids.”
This was close. Mike views the Baron as a kind of derivative of Weismann-style Blue-White decks from way back in the day, but I really think that I@n's friend has it best. This deck learns as it plays. People look at Baron decks that I've built over the years and one of the first things that they ask is “Do you really need the Blessings?” or, next most common, “Do you really need three Blessings?” The answer, for this archetype, is an emphatic YES.
You're not using Gaea's Blessing in a Baron deck to try to make sure that you never deck, or to give yourself a slightly thicker library, you're actually trying to make your deck able to learn. There is a certain threshold of card drawing, card selection, and recursive elements to a deck that make your library slowly sculpt into something that would be unbeatable by your opponent, given enough time. Each passing turn is another turn in which your deck and hand are improved so that there are nearly no possible outs available to an opponent. If this inevitability weren't the goal, you wouldn't need the three Gaea's Blessing slots.
For Pro Tour: Yokohama, I adapted the deck to Time Spiral Block for a Madison player, Gaudenis Vidugiris, and he managed a very respectable 54th place in his first Pro Tour. Here's the list that I gave him:
PT: Yokohama – Gaudenis Vidugiris 54th
Time Spiral Baron
This was the list that I worked from as began preparing for the upcoming PTQ season. It was clear to me that the list was really quite powerful, though it also had some flaws that I was somewhat uncomfortable with, most notably the sideboard. Future Sight, also, had a number of cards that seemed all but perfect for improving the deck. After a lot of development, here is the final list.
PTQ Chicago – Adrian Sullivan 1st (2007 – For Valencia)
While I do very much like the sideboard, it is possible that it could definitely be improved. The main deck, however, is something that I wouldn't touch for the life of me. The main played out so incredibly beautifully, with all of the pieces working just as I'd like, that I couldn't imagine changing a thing.
To be fair, the two Tolaria West also have a place in this section. Essentially, this is a part of the guts of what make the deck work. You really want to be able to draw not only a lot of cards, but to get rid of the useless ones, even if they are only really useless in the moment. The four Mystical Teachings is more than many lists run, and combined with the four Careful Considerations, make for a much more heavy element of card draw and library manipulation than other decks. The Careful Considerations really allow you to be able to play one-ofs that are quite conditional, if very powerful in that condition. Clearly the Teachings allow you the ability to get the best bullets in the particular matchup, but the Considerations let you put those weak bullets into the bin, while the Blessings act on teaching the deck what to do. Oftentimes there might not be time to cast an early Blessing, so it is incredibly common for the first one to be discarded, but once the mid- to late-game set in, you are generally very happy to be drawing the Blessings. Versus the other control decks, you find that you have an inexhaustible supply of control-worthy cards, and versus the aggressive decks, you have an inexhaustible supply of board control. It cannot be said enough that the Considerations are crucial to this arrangement, letting you dump the cards that have no place in either the matchup or the moment into the graveyard, and allowing you little luxuries with the set up of your library.
The Board Control Suite
Playing four Damnation seems like a requirement in the current metagame. In some matchups, extra Damnations are nearly useless, but in others they are crucial. This is a perfect example of the utility of the Consideration engine in the deck. The singleton elim spells were chosen very carefully. Sudden Death can take out an opposing Teferi, or simply have a great deal of power because of the Split Second mechanic. Slaughter Pact is incredibly important, allowing you to tap out completely in the face of nearly any creature threat, and having the added bonus of being searchable with a Tolaria West or Mystical Teachings and (generally) being able to be played immediately.
People often wonder at the two Tendrils of Corruption, insisting that you should run more. The desire for more Tendrils of Corruption is exactly what has pushed a lot of the recent Teferi lists into a Korlash build instead. The A.I. nature of The Baron makes additional Tendrils unnecessary against an unknown opponent. While you will absolutely side in an additional Tendrils in the appropriate matchup, you do not want to give up that valuable deck space when you aren't sure what your opponent might be, and the A.I. nature of the deck does create a seemingly unlimited supply of Tendrils in any late game.
The Spell Control Suite
Here we have our four “Cancels”. Cancel, I've vocally claimed, is garbage. This is a format that you really need to be acting, in general, and not reacting, even in the control matchups. That said, you do really want to be able to stop a problematic spell. Pact of Negation serves much the same purpose as Slaughter Pact, a tutorable spell that allows you to tap out when you need to, again fostering the choice to act. Spell Burst is one of those cards that you never side out, but you almost never want to see in your opening hand. This is an easy, early discard to the A.I., but in the mid- to late-game, it can be incredibly damning. As your mana builds up turn after turn, you can absolutely break someone's back with it. Haunting Hymn has been shown to be the ultimate game winner in the near-mirror match, and upon occasion can make a fantastic game 1 tutor target even against unlikely matchups, like Red. Venser is an incredibly versatile card that stands firmly between the spell control and board control worlds – while you'll be more likely to use it like a walking Snapback, the fact is, it absolutely can be used to win a crucial counterspell war, or to bounce a built up Dreadship Reef from the opponent. Draining Whelk almost feels out of place. It is an incredibly expensive counter spell that seems to be too inefficient as a counter. On the other hand, a well-timed Whelk can absolutely rip the game away from nearly any opponent. Like Spell Burst, this card is often discarded early, like that first Gaea's Blessing, but it can come back with a vengeance. The final reason for its inclusion is its ability to wrap up a game so that time isn't as likely to be a factor (something very important for a slow control deck like this).
These are the workhorses of the deck, and also, the ostensible finishers (though your utter inevitability is the real finisher). The Pickles lock (Brine/Shapeshifter) is not a lock that I'm particularly fond of for a typical Teferi-style deck. While incredibly powerful, it takes up a lot of slots to be so easily nixed by a single well-timed elimination spell, or worse, the need to hold onto all of the respective pieces at inopportune times of the game or lose the lock element. In a Baron deck, however, this fear is not at all important. Should the lock be disrupted or discarded, it can simply be reassembled. The power of the Pickles lock is incredibly important, as it can win games that you might otherwise have no way of winning. The Shapeshifters serve an extra purpose in being potential speed bumps for opposing aggressive decks, or copying important creatures that the opponent might lay out that are otherwise hard to deal with, like Mystic Enforcer, Calciderm, Thelonite Hermit, and others. Teferi serves us a tutorable creature that can further serve to allow the lock to be tutored out, as well as a lightning rod for opposing creature decks. Knowing, for example, that your opponent cannot surprise you with a combat trick, or mess with your Tendrils of Corruption, is an important ability. Only Word of Seizing can make Teferi a liability (but do be aware, and beware that possibility). Perhaps its most important ability, though, is stopping opposing Suspend cards. As people move away from pure counterspells, his ability to stop counters becomes less and less relevant. Clearly Urza's Factory belongs in this section as well, but I'm keeping it in the mana section.
The mana is tuned to allow for the maximum ability to cast the main and sideboard cards, while trying to minimize the damage caused by mana disruption from Detritivore, Magus of the Moon, and other such cards. While a card like Urborg is an important card to get down in many matchups, recognize that you can easily recurse it or search for it anew, and reducing the basic land count is not advisable. At 31 mana, you're likely to be outmanaing most of your opponents, though they might be able to get you.
Sideboarding the Baron is very tricky. You want to keep intact the A.I. engine as much as possible, but you might need to cut it down a little bit, depending on the matchup. Generally, don't reduce to less than three Consideration for any reason, and don't go below two Teachings. Try not to side out a Blessing unless you are really strapped for space, but definitely don't go to less than two.
Generally speaking, sideboarding often comes from the gut. Versus aggressive decks, you'll be bringing in some combination of Slaughter Pact, Tendrils of Corruption, Venser, and Vesuvan Shapeshifter, depending on what you see as the nature of their deck. Versus controlling decks, you'll bring in Draining Whelk, Pact of Negation, Take Possession, Venser and Vesuvan, depending on the specific nature of the opposing deck. Krosan Grip comes in against any scary enchantments, along with the Take Possessions. Porphyry Nodes comes in against aggressive creature decks that simply have to lay their creatures, but might be otherwise resistant to Black elimination (generally Tarmogoyf decks, and White Weenie). Remember to not reduce the A.I. of your deck to bring everything in, though. Versus every deck, I generally like to keep in at least a single Tendrils of Corruption, just in case…
Overall, it really felt as though the deck had huge advantages against every Blue/X control deck that I played or tested against, and large advantages against the beatdown decks as well. The only really scared place for the deck has seemed to be against decks that were very aggressive in attacking the mana of the deck, but they seem to be held back pretty well by Tarmogoyf decks.
Honestly, if you are well-practiced with this list, the only incentive in playing another Mystical Teachings deck of any kind I can see is in playing a deck that can win more rapidly if you are unable to play quickly enough to win with a deck like this.
Chicago's event was skillfully run by Pastimes, and was seven rounds with 118 people. My notes are not at all as complete as I would like, and so this is the event as best as I can recall.
Round 1 – Brian Kowal – Korlash-control
Brian's deck was incredibly similar to the Top 8 Korlash from the recent Grand Prix, and I knew that he was going to be very prepared for my deck: I had been talking sideboarding strategy about the deck with him in Madison plenty of times, and I'd played it around him as well. Brian is a long-time member of Cabal Rogue, and a good friend, but as time passes, it seems as though it just gets more and more likely that you'll be playing a good friend Round 1.
We both jockey back and forth in game 1, with him hitting me with an Extirpate on Mystical Teachings fairly early. I manage to get out a Teferi that he removes, but I drop down the Pickles lock when he is vulnerable, and it sticks. This game took about 20 minutes, and I knew that he'd be bringing in Take Possession like me, but I wasn't sure what else.
We do the initial jockeying again, but he drops a Korlash and gets it to stick, smashing me quite quickly.
Game 3, he Extirpates me first for Teachings, then for Careful Consideration, and finally for Take Possession. I'm outmanaing him by a great deal, though, and still running the Blessings. Urza's Factory comes online, and while he tries to resist it with his own (slightly behind time of mine), I push through him.
Round 2 – Andy from St. Louis – Black/Blue Teferi
Andy's deck had multiple main deck Chroniclers, and a Delay/Cancel counterspell suite, as well as double Urza's Factory.
We do that typical dance early, he Extirpates Teachings, but I'm ahead of him in building up the storage lands and the first Urza's Factory, and eventually he folds to it.
Game 1 took forever, and he's ahead of me with Factory and a Whelk, but he isn't able to finish me in extra turns, as I hold him off with my Factory and multiple morphs.
Round 3 – Tony from Des Moines – G/W Tarmogoyf
His deck was full of all of the usual suspects – a Green/White deck that was made to be a nightmare for the Black control elements in traditional Black/Blue control, and creatures ridiculously difficult for Red to handle as well.
I play game 1 a bit to romantically when he has out a Saffi and a Boa, and I don't Damnation, and he punishes me for it by dropping Griffin Guide in successive turns. I'm out of outs pretty much immediately, and we go to the next game.
Game 2 ended a bit embarrassingly. We are pushing back and forth on each other, and he is putting out a strong play after a double mulligan, when we realize that I hadn’t paid for the Slaughter Pact from a three to four turns earlier. We bring a judge over to resolve the issue, unsure whether or not I’ll die or I’ll stay alive. Eventually, the final ruling is that I live, and we both get warnings... He battles my Porphyry Nodes with a Kestrel, but it, combined with the rest of my elim package knocks him out of it, and the Pickles lock finishes him off.
Game 3, I drop an early Nodes to off a few men and slow him down to buy time. Vesuvan Shapeshifter trades with another creature, and I Damnation as needed. He drops me to 5 when I finally send off my first Tendrils, and then my next Tendrils, bringing me up to 33. Eventually, he scoops to my men.
Round 4 – Stephen Neal from Madison – Shell Game Red
Stephen is playing a Red deck that I designed that plays 29 land (he cut one for some silly reason), and I'm a little worried, as some of the elements of it are specifically designed to play against slow control.
In the first game, he gets me down to 11 before I stabilize the board, but I can't get anything useful going to stop his pair of Keldon Megaliths, and they finish me off.
The second game is much the same, but he uses a Gargadon to drop me to three when I'm all tapped out. I take that opportunity to drop and play the Pickles combo and kill him before he can do anything nasty, with Tendrils in hand for back up.
The third game, he suspends an early Gargadon, and then another, a bit later, though I'm holding him off with a Teferi. I'm at three when the Gargadon finally is gone, and I aim a pair of Tendrils at his two creatures. Unable to respond, I hop up to a healthy 22 life.
Round 5 – Richard from Ames – Red beatdown
He slowly knocks me down in life with a Magus and a Gathan Raiders. I stabilize, but not before he gets me to 7, and a combination of Megalith and burn finishes me off.
The next game involves more of the same, except this time, I gain 20 life off three Tendrils, some aimed at his men, and some at my own. I have a comfortably full grip, and he is at 20 life, when he scoops from an empty hand and board versus my Teferi.
Again, an embarrassing moment, as my haste, illness (I’m sick with some kind of bronchial infection), and tiredness cause me to fail to pay for a Slaughter Pact once again. Richard waited for me to fail to pay before announcing that the Pact had had to be paid for, but a judge issued us both warnings. Personally, something seems wrong to me that he should have to announce to me the need for my Pact. As he said to the judge, he’d seen me fail to pay for a Pact in the earlier round, and he’d been hoping I’d fail to do it again. I don’t understand why he should be forced to help me avoid bad play... Isn’t that what skill testing cards are for? To catch idiots like me who aren’t paying attention? I told him that I thought he was going to win anyway, but I remember feeling pretty comfortable with my game position at that point in the game, though I do think it would have been close.
Round 6 – Mark from Chicago – White Weenie
Mark was playing a White Weenie deck with just a touch of Slivers. The first game he manage to take me with a perfectly time Mana Tithe, mixed with a pair of Griffin Guides, and a Fortify to take me exactly to zero. It was still very, very close, but it all worked out perfectly for him.
In the next two games, I tear him apart with my elim, and he ends both games with no cards in hand and no creatures, versus about twenty life and a seven card hand.
Round 7 – Steve – Black/Blue Teachings
My girlfriend Kat had caught Steve laughing at my Blessings earlier in the event, so it was particularly satisfying beating him. At one point, he Extirpated my Teachings, and got a few cards off of his Chroniclers, but I just kept putting Careful Considerations back into my deck, and pulled way ahead of him on cards. At the very beginning of the match, I noticed his incredibly slow pace of play, and around the time I realized I was going to win (turn 4, when I resolved my first Consideration, and pulled 4 land, including a second Reef to his none), I pulled my pace back from very fast (to compensate his incredibly slow play) to normal. After he died to my creatures, he asked the judge to watch me for slow play (laughable given how much faster I was playing than him), and we played a quick game 2 where I just slaughtered him.
The Top 8
The Top 8 was pretty stellar, including old-school player Ronny Serio and fellow Cabal Rogue member Rashad Miller, as well as Richard Feldman, and other solid players.
Quarterfinals – Zachary from Crystal Lake, IL – Black/Blue Teachings
Zach is playing a clear Cancel/Chronicler build, so I feel very confident. In both games, he Extirpates Teachings, and gets a Chronicler going, but I just A.I. all over him and draw about a million cards more than him. I steal his Chronicler in game 2, and beat him to death with it.
Semifinals – Ronny Serio from Chicago – fast Red beats
He is playing a very traditional Gargadon/Disintegrate/Blood Knight/Marshall style Red deck. In both games, I use my Vesuvan Shapeshifters to copy his early Marshals, and then gain control with Tendrils. I don't really remember much of this match, other than how out of the match he seemed throughout it, and Ronny and I reminiscing about the last 10 years of Magic, and wondering when we'd last played (we're guessing it was 1998 or so).
Finals – Rashad Miller from Chicago – Tarox Red
Rashad's deck is much like the Tarox deck from Grand Prix, mixing early beats and burn with the to the air reach of Tarox.
In the first game, he relentlessly pushes me down, while I dig for cards and occasionally clear the board. Tarox tries to get in twice with a boost from another Tarox, but I bounce it or kill it each time. I'm at four when I use my first Tendrils on my own Teferi, and pull out of his reach.
In the second game, he helps my light mana situation (only four!) with an Avalanche Riders and then a Magus of the Moon. I'm consistently one land short of being able to finish off the Magus with a Teachings for Slaughter Pact, and he kills me quite quickly.
In the final game, I never once use a Tendrils on his creatures, but always use it on my own men, in a moment where they can't be punished. At pretty much no point in the game after the first Damnation did I ever feel at risk, always having at least two creature elimination and six cards in my hand.
I'm sorry that I don't have more details, but this is the event as I can best remember it. Suffice it to say, I'm excited to be going to Valencia, and I hope to see some familiar faces while I'm out there. If you're looking for a PTQ deck, I heartily recommend the Baron with a few caveats. The deck requires a lot of patience. Often the best play is to do something like build up a charge counter on a Dreadship Reef instead of going closer to a kill. Since this is the case, it means that not only do you need to play quickly enough not to time out, but you have to be able to not jump the gun. This takes practice. In addition, you have to have a good gut sense with sideboarding. You might want, for example, to side in a lot more cards than you need to, but make sure that you keep the A.I. intact, or you will absolutely suffer for it.
I can't wait to see some of you in Valencia! Good luck to everyone still playing in the PTQs!