Thursday, October 14, 2010

Standard Deviations # 2 - Missing State Championships (decklist included)

Hello everyone and welcome back to another belated edition of The Cardboard Witch.  As regular readers of this blog know my health has been a little dicey recently; forcing me to miss a number of Magic events over the past 30 days.  Needless to say this has been a sad time in Ninaville and it's probably safe to call being too sick to play at Ontario Provincials this Saturday a new low water mark. I even went so far as to get dressed and ride all the way out to the event before constant chills and body wracking shivers forced me back home to bed.  I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I slept roughly 34 of the next 48 hours; waking up cold and miserable from time to time.  Thankfully today I'm finally starting to feel a little better (Wednesday) or at least better enough to write about my favorite obsession: Magic.

While I didn't actually get to compete at "States" I did spend a significant amount of time preparing to do so; including both designing a number of decks for friends and testing against the "Net" decks I expected to be popular this time around.  I'd estimate that I probably spent 75 hours over 9-10 days attempting to immerse myself in the new post-Scars Standard.  Of course like almost everyone else who is playing Standard right now the first thing I discovered is that "Mana Ramp" and "U/W Control" decks are both popular and fairly hard to beat.  Complicating matters even further it became fairly obvious that so-called "Mana Ramp" decks were actually two completely separate deck-types; G/R Valakuut and either Mono G or G/x Eldrazi.  While both of these decks share many common cards and a key lynch-pin (Primeval Titan) they play and must be played against quite differently.  Despite these harsh realities however I also felt that post-Scars Standard was a wildly varied format with at least 8-10 viable deck choices openly supported within the card pool. Though I clearly expected the "Big 3" decks to dominate the format through sheer numbers I believed you could build several decks that would be strong against either Ramp or Control; while still competing on a 50/50 basis with the other option.

Ultimately I think it's fair to say that States results bore most of these opinions out.  U/W Control was a little stronger than I thought it would be but otherwise there was a fairly wide variety spread across the Top 8's of this event.  While obviously present Ramp most certainly didn't run away with the format as many had predicted.  With the first major Standard event of this season as a backdrop I'd like to take a look at some of the decks I'll be playing around with in this "Brave New Standard".   While clearly I can't claim that these decks tested out well at States because I didn't go, I do feel they represent reasonable options in the coming weeks and I intend to play them or variations on them at my local Standard events.

First up let's look at my favorite "new" deck in the format and the one I myself would have played at States if I had been well enough to stay:

Die in a Fire: - Mono Red + Artifacts

Creatures - 21:

4x Goblin Guide
4x Ember Hauler
4x Kargan Dragonlord
3x Chandra's Spitfire
3x Molten-Tail Masticore
3x Inferno Titan   

Spells - 15:                

4x Lightning Bolt
4x Burst Lightning
3x Brittle Effigy
4x Koth of the Hammer 

Land - 24:

24x Mountain

Sideboard - 15:

4x Tunnel Ignus
3x Arc Trail
3x Ratchet Bomb
3x Ricochet Trap
1x Brittle Effigy
1x Molten-Tail Masticore

Overview: Die in a Fire is a hybrid mono-red deck built around direct damage (Burn) and a number of potentially game ending creatures (Bombs).  It seeks to combine the best parts of both blitz weenie red (Red Deck Wins) and a more control-ish "big threats" design (Big Red) to create a stronger, more resilient build than either.  As an interesting side note this deck originally started as a Metalcraft based red artifacts build with cards like Loadstone Golem, Galvanizing Blast and Kuldotha Phoenix.  Unfortunately no matter how many random artifact mana creatures I added (Pilgrims Eye, Iron Myr) I couldn't consistently reach and maintain Metalcraft.  Hopefully the next two sets will offer more reasons to re-explore this idea since I felt it was extremely close already.

What I think it's good at: So far in testing this deck seems to excel against weenie aggro strategies and both types of "Ramp", although these match-ups still require careful play.  Against Ramp the deck is quite capable of running too fast for an opponent who's unlikely to make a significant play before turn 4.  This is particularly relevant when you realize how dependent many of these decks are on Joraga Treespeaker; a card unlikely to survive your 8 burn spells and 4 Ember Haulers.  Against weenie aggro however the deck should shift into a more control based play-style; trading creatures and cheap burn spells to stay alive long enough to play your superior monsters.  While it's likely a true dedicated "blitz" deck will be able to outrun you in the early game they run out of answers pretty quickly when you start leveling up Dragonlords and spitting out Inferno Titans.  Finally owing mostly to the "game winning" nature of the creatures this deck plays, Die in a Fire is fairly strong against most types of Control.  In particular it does well against U/W decks that run 6 or less counter spells and 3 Day of Judgements.  While you won't win every match, most of the time you'll simply play too many threats for the U/W player to answer every time.  I say "most of the time" because there are variations on this deck that can strongly improve the U/W players match-up but they don't seem to be very popular right now.  

What I think it's not good at:  While this may seem somewhat obvious, red decks as a general rule don't draw a lot of cards and this one is no exception.  This typically means you're going to have to win the game with the first 12-14 cards on top of your deck and sometimes that just isn't going to happen.  Without some form of card draw/cycling decks become more vulnerable to mana screw/flood and or simply drawing the wrong spell at the wrong time.  Die in a Fire mitigates this problem by running spells and creatures that can serve multiple roles as the situation warrants but really nothing is going to save you from drawing 4 land in a row in the mid-game.  This dovetails into our next problem; black discard effects.  If drawing cards is a problem then obviously your opponent ripping cards out of your hand magnifies that problem.  In particular Duress out of a control deck can be an issue; denying access to Koth or Brittle Effigy depending on the draw.  Mind Sludge is also very frustrating against Mono-Black Control (MBC) because you'll typically still have 4 or 5 cards in hand when your opponent hits his 5th Swamp.  Finally the deck can struggle against builds that run multiple creatures with more than 4 toughness.  This isn't a really big deal against control decks since they'll take forever to play more than one "fat monster" and you'll have time to draw your Brittle Effigies or just waste 2 burn spells on one target.  This is much harder however against a true aggro deck with guys who are just "fat assed" and mean.  For example when testing against my own mono-green build it became fairly evident that 3 Brittle Effigies have a hard time beating 4 Leatherback Baloths and 3 Wurmcoil Engines.        

What the Sideboard does: This is one of the most basic sideboards I have ever build for a Standard deck; primarily because I had absolutely no idea what I'd face from round to round at "States".  4x Tunnel Ignus allows you to guarantee the match-up with Ramp, since it's quite likely they'll bring in more removal and/or All is Dust in game 2.  The idea isn't to win the game with Ignus but to force your opponent to either slow down and let you overwhelm him or pay 3 life multiple times to get enough mana to wipe the board.  Remember to hold back a threat for the turn after he finally plays All is Dust.  The 3 copies of Ratchet Bomb are primarily counter-meta against Leyline of Sanctity but they also help against weenie hordes, tokens and Kor Firewalker.  It is incredibly difficult for this deck to beat a U/W Control player after Leyline has resolved and therefore I strongly recommend boarding in all 3 copies for game 2 against this match-up.  Even if it turns out he doesn't have Leylines you can always use the Ratchet Bomb on Jace the Mind Sculptor or Volition Reins; both cards I guarantee most U/W players will be running.  While the ability to throw 4 damage at your opponent's "dome" in the late game made Burst Lightning the better choice for the main deck, sometimes you'll want to burn out a lot of smaller creatures in the early game and let your monsters finish an opponent off.  Arc Trail is perfect for this job and against most weenie horde decks I'll typically switch all 3 of them in for the clunky/ponderous Brittle Effigies in game 2.  3x Ricochet Trap allows you to protect certain key spells against counter-magic; just remember to redirect the counterspell at the Ricochet Trap.  You can not have the counterspell target itself, despite how often people attempt to do just that.  Usually I'll save my RT's to force out either a Koth, a Molten-Masticore or an Inferno Titan although really anything you can stick and use to win the game is an acceptable option.  I'm also looking forward to using Ricochet Trap on an opponent's Volition Reins to make him waste 6 mana but it hasn't happened yet.  Usually I bring in the 1x Brittle Effigy against decks built around Titans and Wurmcoil Engines.  I really would prefer to run all 4 BE's in the main deck but one of them ended up in the sideboard because I needed more creatures.  Finally the 1x Molten-Tail Masticore is another card I really would prefer to run 4 copies of in the main deck but I ultimately ran out of room.  I usually don't bring this card in unless my opponent aggressively attacks my on-board Masticores in the previous game.  This is a very important card for Die in a Fire but many opponents will assume the price of discarding a card is too high and let you keep the Masticore; making 4 unnecessary in the main deck.         

How to play it: While I wouldn't describe Die in a Fire as "hard" to play it's definitely a little trickier than your classic mono-red blitz strategy.  Ideally you want to play like an aggro deck against control and combo opponents while shifting more towards a control strategy against other aggro decks; sorta like Jund from the previous Standard.  The key to figuring out which style to play in a given match is to ask yourself who has the more dangerous cards on turns 5, 6 and 7.  This will tell you whether you are running towards or away from "big monsters" and should dictate your play accordingly.  No matter who you're playing against a fast start can be quite helpful and there's nothing wrong with trying to kick your opponent's doors down in the first 4 turns; provided you don't overextend yourself into mass-removal effects.  Draws like turn 1 Goblin Guide, Turn 2 Ember Hauler, Turn 3 Chandra's Spitfire can easily produce turn 4 kills while still holding back Koth, Masticore, Dragonlord or Inferno Titan "in case something goes wrong".  The key is to remember that you win when your opponent's life total hits zero; not by forcing a particular strategy on a given turn. During testing I have absolutely left lethal damage on the table because I was too locked in to controlling my opponent's creatures or pressing early attacks.  You should constantly be calculating your opponent's life total from turn to turn based on the actions available to you both on board and in your hand; this deck can generate well over 15 points of "surprise" damage on a given turn pretty much any time after turn 3.  Against counter control I strongly recommend simply casting into their early Mana Leaks during game 1.  It doesn't benefit you to wait until turn 4 or 5 to cast your creatures and modern control decks run like 6 counterspells total anyways.  If he counters your Ember Hauler/Chandra's Spitfire that leaves less counters for your Kargan Dragonlord/Koth/Masticore next turn.  This gets a little trickier in game 2 because your opponent will likely bring in 2-3 Flashfreezes and maybe a couple of extra Negates.  If you have reason to suspect your opponent may be playing mass board control (probably Day of Judgement, Ratchet Bomb or Pyroclasm but sometimes Chain Reaction/Marsh Casualties/Consume the Meek) you should probably hold back at least one powerful creature for the turn after he sweeps the board.  In fact this is a good policy in general even if you don't suspect mass removal; there's little point in forcing out an Inferno Titan if you can win the game by simply leveling up a Dragonlord instead.  Try not to waste your Brittle Effigy's on creatures you could burn out in game 1 unless absolutely necessary.  Many random aggro decks in the format run Wurmcoil Engines, Baneslayer Angels and or Titans as finishers; you'll strongly regret wasting an early Effigy if one of these cards hits the table on the other side.  

Well folks there you have it; my favorite deck in the new Standard and what I would have played at States if my body hadn't failed me so horribly. :)  Hopefully this article has helped to prove that the new Standard isn't all about Ramp and U/W Control but thanks for reading regardless.  Hopefully the current upswing in my health will continue so I can write about the other Standard decks I'll be playing from time to time.  Until then keep it weird.

As a final note I'd like to congratulate my friend and co-worker Stephen Kerr on his top 4 Finish at Ontario Provincials.  Stephen is rapidly becoming the best Magic player I know, he puts in the time and effort to find the answers other people don't see.  I'm extremely proud of him and it's nice to see his efforts being rewarded.  Congrats Stephen.  Hopefully the tournament organizers will make the top decklists from this event available soon so I can talk with all of you about why Stephen's G/w Ramp Control hybrid deck is so strong.

Until next time, ciao!


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