Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Standard Deviations #6 - Friday Night FireFight

Hello everyone and welcome back for another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Unfortunately the strange combination of a very hectic week at work and a torturous bout of writer's block have conspired to keep me away from blogging for the past few days.  Confused and frustrated I decided the only logical solution to this problem was to grab a Standard deck and attend a Friday Night Magic event at the Hairy T North.

Due to illness, it'd been quite a while since I'd played in a Standard tournament and I found myself looking forward to playing competitive constructed Magic again.  In my opinion the current Standard is one of the most wide open formats in years despite the many (mine included) early predictions that it would be all about Jace TMS and Primeval Titan. While those cards are certainly format defining, post-Scars Standard in my opinion actually has about 10-12 viable deck choices and the meta-game goes way beyond "how do I stop blue and green?".  In fact this "variety" of possible opponents was my chief problem while trying to decide what deck I was going to play late Wednesday evening.  My local environment is particularly wild; with aggro combo builds (WW Affinity, Kuldotha Red) being as popular or possibly more popular than Jace/Primeval Titan decks.  Unfortunately this was countered by the fact that many of the more skilled players area were likely to be playing Jace or Titan based strategies as well.  Quite literally I needed a deck that could beat "everything" and "anything" under the sun; a very tall order in the current format.

Ultimately I decided that my best bet was to play a U/B Control deck with a modified sideboard; essentially conceding game 1 against aggro combo decks to ensure a better match against control.  My logic was that if I had to win 2 games in a row I'd much rather it be against decks that can't outrun me to Jace.  Of course this would necessitate a *very* strong sideboard against fast aggro swarm strategies; slipping up even once after game 1 would mean losing the round entirely.  I started with the following list (scroll down): Dimir KISS and tinkered it slightly for the environment I expected to see on Friday:

Maindeck:  - 2x Volition Reins, +2 Into the Roil

I also changed the SB completely:

3x Memoricide
2x Volition Reins
2x Consume the Meek
2x Ratchet Bomb
2x Disfigure
2x Smother
1x Jace Berelen
1x Brittle Effigy

Obviously the Smothers, Disfigures, Ratchet Bombs and Consume the Meeks were included to deal with weenie swarm aggro decks; I chose to split my 4 "extra kill" slots between Smother and Disfigure to help with cards like Leatherback Baloth, Celestial Colonnade and Raging Ravine while still keeping overall mana costs down. I did the same with the mass board wipe by combining 2x Ratchet Bombs to deal with Kudoltha Rebirth decks and 2x Consume the Meek to choke out more traditional aggro.  Pretty much every other card in the sideboard is about beating enemy Jace the Mind Sculptors and Titans/Wurmcoil Engines; winning the Jace/Titan war is simply THAT important in this format.

After spending an hour on the subway with my friend and fellow competitor Tommy I was a little disappointed to find out that we only had 7 players.  Not only was this an awkward number but we wouldn't be able to sanction the event with the DCI.  While my current rating is a little unimpressive I've developed a mild interest in improving it since I learned that it can earn you up to 3 byes at a Grand Prix! :)  Unfortunately once it became clear an 8th player wasn't going to salvage our tournament Kelly graciously agreed to drop and we sat down to battle for Championship of the Universe.

Round 1 - Scott: RUG Titan Control  

By sheer stroke of luck my round 1 opponent turned out to be famous Eh Team podcaster ScottyMac and he'd arrived "loaded for bear".  From chatting on twitter I knew that Scott had recently switched to a version of RUG Titan as a direct response to our wacky "all-in" control or aggro format.  Unfortunately this didn't exactly bode well for me as one of RUG Titan's best match-ups is U/B Control.  Additionally while it was true that I'd read several articles about RUG Titan online; I'd never actually playtested a game against one simply because nobody had brought a copy by the store recently.  Finally of course I had to address the fact that my opponent had a final trump card I'd hadn't accounted for; an awesome  Movember mustache.  I felt that my nonstandard build of U/B (8 Counters, 4 maindeck Duress and extra card draw) might be able to steal game 1 from Scott's deck on a good draw but I had absolutely no counter for his mustache.

Game 1 saw me win the roll and then open up an almost ideal hand against what Scott was doing; 2x Duress, 1x Mana Leak, 1x Doom Blade, 1x Jace the Mind Sculptor, 1x Frost Titan and 1x Tectonic Edge.  Unfortunately there was pretty much zero chance I could keep a 1 land hand that featured not only no copies of Preordain but no blue mana either.  Taking a  mulligan I came back with a hand that looked something like: 1x Island, 1x Swamp, 1x Preordain, 1x Jace the Mind Sculptor, 1x Jace's Ingenuity and 1x Frost Titan.  Unfortunately this hand was basically going to be horrible against Scott but I really didn't feel comfortable trying to beat another Jace/Control deck on the play with a 5 card hand so I kept it.  Despite the turn 1 Preordain, things really didn't get much better from that point.  I managed to whiff completely on early game Duresses or counter-magic; drawing more Titans and a random Into the Roil.  Scott on the other hand started out strong, with a Lotus Cobra followed up quickly by an Oracle of Mul Daya.  Once he'd established his mana base however he shifted into super cautious mode; playing (but not using) "cracklands" and passing the turn 2 or 3 times in a row.  Realizing that he was likely hiding behind a single Mana Leak I decided to force the issue by dropping my Jace TMS, I'd drawn a second copy the turn before and it didn't look like I had any gas coming I decided to draw out his counter.  Of course he did have the Mana Leak but by tapping out I finally force him into action; he quickly dropped his own copy of Jace and after countering my 2nd Jace (so I was wrong about the single Mana Leak) dropped a Frost Titan into play while casually commenting that I was "just going to Doom Blade it for 4".  Of course I did exactly that but unfortunately I was forced to cast 2 more copies of Preordain and dig as deeply as possible just to find the Doom Blade; both tapping me out again and forcing me to ship 2 copies of Duress to the bottom of my Library in the process.  At this point it became clear that the game was likely lost; I was completely out of gas with no threats in play and eating 4 a turn from random mana creatures even without the Titan.  I made one last attempt to salvage the game by bouncing back his Jace with an Into the Roil but when I attempted to Duress it out of his hand he dropped the 3rd Mana Leak and my plans were undone.  I admitted to Scott that at this point I was simply playing to see more of his deck and he obliged me by taking 3 turns to kill me with multiple Raging Ravines.

Heading into game 2 I was faced with two major problems; first my opponent's deck would probably beat mine 65/35 in a vacuum and second I had absolutely no clue how to properly sideboard against his build.  In particular I was afraid of bringing in Volition Reins because the only finisher I'd seen him play was a Frost Titan and waiting for 8 spare mana didn't seem like a winning play in this situation.  Ultimately I decided to bring in 3x Memoricide, 1x Brittle Effigy and 1x Jace Berelen while dropping both Into the Roils, Jace's Ingenuity's and a single Mana Leak.

Unfortunately game 2 was a one-sided blowout in my favor.  After played a couple of Creeping Tar Pits I decided to draw out Scott's Mana Leak by casting a turn 4 Memoricide naming Jace TMS.  My opponent rolled his eyes and tossed his hand to me revealing no Mana Leaks, no green mana sources and 2 copies of Jace TMS.  While flipping through his deck for the other two copies of Jace I made a brief effort to take a look at the rest of his build, noting 2x Gaea's Revenge and 2-3 Summoning Traps.  If this were a serious tournament I would have spent a little longer looking and made the effort to memorize his entire list but Scott is a pretty friendly guy and I didn't want to make him wait around for me to catalog everything in my head.  I then proceeded to cast *my* Jace on turn 5 and began "Fate Sealing" the top of Scott's deck to keep him off green mana.  Eventually I had enough mana to cast a Grave Titan through a potential Mana Leak and ended the game in two attack phases.

Game 3 started with me yet again failing to draw an opening hand Duress in the match I needed it most (vs Summoning Trap).  My hand did however have 2 Mana Leaks, a Jace the Mind Sculptor, a Frost Titan and 3 land with both colors featured.  Scott chose to go first and after we both played out a land he cast a Lotus Cobra and quickly followed it up with an Oracle of Mul Daya on the next turn.  I'd drawn a Cancel but facing down the very real threat of Scott turning off both of my Mana Leaks by turn 4 I felt I *had* to risk countering the Oracle.  Of course Scott promptly cast Summoning Trap and dug out Gaea's Revenge from his top 7 cards.  I looked down at the 3 land I had in play, looked back at the Grave Titan in my hand and realized that even if I drew 3 consecutive land to cast it I'd already be quite dead to the "Angry Green Man.  With no outs whatsoever I conceded the game to Scott and wished him luck in the next round.

Analysis: While many people would blame my loss on luck (3 games without an opening Duress? owch) unfortunately the truth is that I made two major mistakes that ultimately lead to my downfall.  First and foremost I sideboarded incorrectly; I should have removed 2-4 counterspells in favor of extra spot removal.  This would have allowed me to kill Scott's mana engine creatures without walking into Summoning Trap.  Without his mana critters he'd be moving at roughly the same speed as me and I felt my counters to his Jaces were better than his counters to mine (Memoricide/Duress vs Bolt).  Second, I made a mechanical error by even casting the Mana Leak on Scott's 4th turn in game 3.  I knew that if he responded to my Leak by flipping a Summoning Trap and found the Gaea's Revenge I was dead on board before I cast the counterspell.  With that knowledge I decided to gamble on him not having the answer and lost; whereas if I had simply allowed the Oracle to resolve I would have had one more draw phase to find answers.  Additionally since Scott was unable to actually cast the Gaea's Revenge at that point whatever he DID cast with all that mana was less likely to instantly end the game.  Out of fear that he would accelerate too quickly into the end game I made the one play that made it possible for him to do exactly that; in technical terms we call this a "punt".  That's not to say I would have won without playing the Mana Leak; I'm just pointing out that I most certainly *lost* the game the moment I cast that card.   

0-1 (1-2) LVP - A combination of poor SB, a crucial play mistake and a complete inability to draw Duress in my opening hand.

Round 2 - Alex: Mono W Myr Aggro

Still licking my wounds from round 1 I found myself paired against Scott's son, Alex.  Despite the two decade some odd difference in our ages I genuinely enjoy playing Magic with Alex; he's both a competent card player and disarmingly smart.  He's also much better behaved than I was at his age or for that matter than many of my fellow Magic players are now!  Scott is clearly raising himself some "good people".  Unfortunately Alex was *also* running a deck that's a huge game 1 favorite against my U/B control build; in this case a home-brewed mono W aggro deck built around artifact creatures (specifically Myr).  While some people would be tempted to laugh this build off as a theme deck I knew better; Alex was going to come out of the gates incredibly quickly and it would be a minor miracle if I managed to win game 1.

Of course Alex proceeded to win the roll and chose to play in Game 1.  I barely had time to contemplate how much worse this match-up was for me on the draw before my opponent dropped 2 Memnites into play without tapping a single land.  After I played a Creeping Tar Pit (tapped) Alex drew (presumably) and cast a Myrsmith before swinging with his Memnites.  I played an Island and passed the turn with no Mana Leaks in hand only to watch in horror as Alex cast Tempered Steel.  With no Doom Blade in hand and nothing to block Alex's now huge army with I was forced to cast an Into the Roil on his "super-Crusade" and fall to 14 life.  Of course my opponent recast the enchantment on his second main phase with me completely tapped out.  On my next turn I managed to Preordain into a Doom Blade which kept me at 9 life when I killed a Memnite but Alex simply cast a Gold Myr and made a 1/1 Myr Token.  Pretty much out of options I proceeded to cast Jace TMS and used his -1 ability to bounce the now 3/3 Myr Token out of existence.  Alex untapped, activated the spellbomb, cast another Myr and used the Myrsmith to create another 1/1 (3/3!) token before swinging at me for 6 and Jace for 2 simultaneously.  At 3 life and facing down a horde of 3/3 beaters with zero non-land permanents in play I drew my next card and promptly scooped.

In between games I sided in 9 cards; 2x Disfigure, 2x Ratchet Bomb, 2x Smother, 2x Consume the Meek and 1x Jace Berelen.  In order to make room I yanked 4x Duress, 2x Jace's Ingenuity, 2x Into the Roil and 1x Tectonic Edge.  My opponent on the other hand stated that he didn't think his deck had much of a SB for me and went back to reading Manga because it was taking me forever to finishing siding.  I apologized and started to explain that it takes a while to find room for 9 sideboard cards but Alex was already enjoying his Manga too much to care.

Game 2 I decided I pretty much had to play, which was a good thing because my opponent dropped a Memnite and an Ornithopter turn 1. On my 2nd turn I was forced to play a Creeping Tar Pit Tapped while Alex dropped a Gold Myr and another Ornithopter and swung for 1.  At this point I wanted to cast the Ratchet Bomb in my hand just to get the 3 for 1 on his 0CC creatures but I decided to keep my mana back for a counter just in case he cast Tempered Steel; which he did.  I waited for him to cycle with the Spellbomb and drop a Steel Overseer into play on his next turn before Doom Blading it on his end step and blowing up the Ratchet Bomb for 0 on my turn.  I then cast Jace; activated his "brainstorm" ability for 0 and passed the turn back to Alex feeling pretty confident that the game was pretty much over.  Of course Alex had one last surprise in store for me; he untapped, drew a card and promptly slammed down a Precursor Golem to generate a whole new board.  My reaction probably gave away the fact that I didn't have the Doom Blade because Alex smiled pretty wide when he passed the turn back to me.  Fishing for answers I drew a card, brainstormed and then cast Preordain; netting myself a Grave Titan and a Disfigure in the process.  At this point I assumed my opponent was going to attack me for 6-7 and Jace for 3 with one of his Golems; it was both the most logical play and the best way to keep his Golems alive assuming I hadn't already drawn the Doom Blade. I had an active Cancel in hand in case he tried another Tempered Steel so I let him declare attackers and as predicted 2 Golems and a Gold Myr swung at me while a lonely 3rd Golem headed for Jace.  I proceeded to Disfigure the "lead" Golem and turned the others into 1/1s for the turn as well; bringing me down to 15 life and Jace down to 2 loyalty only.  Alex started to move his Golems to the side of the table and I thought for a second that he was about to "bin" all 3 of them so I placed the Disfigure on the table to let him read the card.  Realizing that his Golems weren't dead improved Alex's mood greatly.  While I think it was important to let my opponent realize his error on his own it's also important to note that if he had NOT done so it would be both illegal and immoral to let the Golems die.  There's a difference between taking advantage of a play mistake and mechanical cheating.  On my next turn I was finally able to draw into the Doom Blade and kill off his trio of Golems, leaving me enough mana to counter his topdecked Myr Battlesphere on his next turn.  With my opponent out of cards and out of options I dropped a Grave Titan and a Frost Titan on consecutive turns and we moved to game 3.

Game 3 saw me open up a hand with 2 removal spells, a Consume the Meek and 4 land.  Considering the match-up I really couldn't complain but a tiny part of me was worried that I'd end up flooded with land by the time the game was over.  Once again Alex opened up with a 0CC creature; this time an Ornithoptor before dropping a Memnite and a Steel Overseer on turn 2.  I started drawing counterspells off the top of my library but found myself pretty reluctant to use them; everything Alex had cast so far would die to my Consume the Meek if I could just survive long enough to play my 5th land.  When Alex dropped a Myrsmith and another Ornithoptor I felt compelled to act; dropping a disfigure on the Myrsmith before things got out of hand.  His next turn saw him attempt to cast a Tempered Steel which I then countered before he dropped an Origin Spellbomb and said go.  I untapped and shipped the turn back after playing my 5th land, as predicted Alex cycled the Spellbomb and then put some counters on his guys with Steel Overseer before declaring an attack.  I responded by casting Consume the Meek and wiped his entire board.  Unfortunately I didn't have a way to end the game after doing so; it took me several turns to find a Frost Titan even with an active Jace in play.  Alex kept drawing land for a while until he tried to cast back to back Myr Battlespheres, both of which I countered before 'Ol Frosty managed to win me the game.

Analysis: As predicted my deck was a straight up game 1 "dog" to anything aggro with a lot of interchangeable weenies.  If playing the game out didn't let me see my opponent's cards I'd almost advise just conceding this match-up on turn 1 just to save time for games 2 and 3.  Fortunately you'll lose game 1 so quickly it's simply not necessary.  On the plus side my sideboard strategy seemed effective although I was absolutely sweating bullets in game 2 when Alex cast the Precursor Golem and I was straight up out of answers at the time.  In future it might be a good idea to add either a 3rd Ratchet Bomb or another Consume the Meek (better I think), simply to make sure you always draw one in a match like this.                
1-1 (3-3) MVP - Consume the Meek with Ratchet Bomb earning an honorable mention.  Nothing beats "Wrath of God" effects against weenie aggro swarm decks; even if both cards are straight up inferior to white's Day of Judgement.

Round 3 - Tommy: "Heavy Metal" Mono Red    
With two undefeated players matched in the finals just behind our table, Tommy and I both know that we're battling it out for 3rd place.  Additionally because we're friends and play against each other a lot we both know the exact contents of the other's build.  In practice I usually win but Tommy has pulled off enough spectacular upsets that I didn't consider anything to be guaranteed.  Unfortunately game 1 started off well for me and fairly poorly for Tommy.  After winning the roll I dropped a turn 1 Duress to remove a Liquidmetal Coating; possibly the most important card in Tommy's deck.  This would essentially trap the Manic Vandal I saw in his hand and leave him with some mana Myr and a couple of Galvanic Blasts.  His draw got slightly better with a turn 3 Vulshok Replica but I was able to kill it without taking any damage.  Unfortunately things didn't get much better from there for Tommy and my deck went absolutely off: Jace into Jace's Ingenuity into Grave Titan.  The sequence was interrupted when I had to counter his turn 6 Koth but otherwise my deck played out like a movie script and the game ended very quickly.

After a brief deliberation I didn't make any sideboard changes to my deck.  While I was certainly tempted to remove my Brittle Effigies against his main-deck Vandals and Shatters I also knew that Tommy ran cards like Inferno Titan, Kuldotha Phoenix and Steel Hellkite; 4x Doom Blade simply wouldn't be enough answers.  I decided to leave both artifacts in and just wait until I had 5 mana to play them so I could activate them immediately in response to a Shatter.  I also briefly considered added the 2x Volition Reins but ultimately I couldn't decide what to take out for them and I felt the 5 mana colorless answer was likely safer than the 6 mana triple U answer.  This may have been a mistake.

Game 2 started off a lot like game 1: after Tommy played a Mountain I cast Duress and removed a Liquidmetal Coating from his hand.  The difference this time was that I saw Tommy had 3 Galvanic Blasts and a Kuldotha Phoenix in his hand to go with a couple of Mountains.  Unfortunately I couldn't really take advantage of his slow start but my deck kept feeding me removal and counters; allowing me to counter any artifacts Tommy drew while removing 2 copies of Kuldotha Phoenix from the game with Brittle Effigies.  Eventually Tommy did slip Vulshock Replica through my counter-web but I decided to just Doom Blade it and let him throw it at me for 3 damage to keep him off Metalcraft and protect the Jace I was going to cast on the next turn.  Once I finally played the Jace it only took me a couple turns to find and cast a Grave/Frost Titan combo and win the game.  After game 2 Tommy and I had finished so quickly that we had time to play another 2 games; both of which Tommy won on stronger draws and a play mistake on my part.

Analysis: Anytime you can drop a turn 1 Duress against another control-ish deck with U/B you should put yourself into a good position to win the game.  It's not just about taking away their most dangerous spell; seeing your opponent's hand allows you to map out the next 3 or even 4 turns of game play and manipulate them to your advantage.  This kind of "inside information" makes playing a Control deck spectacularly easy sometimes and that was certainly the case in this match-up.  In retrospect I also think I side-boarded incorrectly against Tommy's deck.  I should have dropped both Into the Roils for Volition Reins.  While it's true Into the Roil is a faster answer for Koth, Volition Reins on a Phoenix, Hellkite or Inferno Titan is a straight blowout win.

2-1 (5-3) MVP - Duress.  One of my opponent's best strategies is to turn my dual colored lands into artifacts and then destroy them with his Shatters/Manic Vandals.  Duress not only stopped that strategy cold but it also told me my opponent's draws were poor and helped me end the game before he could recover.

Well folks there you have it; the gripping story of my 3rd place finish at a 6 person FNM on a cold November night in Canada.  I think overall that the deck tested out well but it seems pretty clear that I am not very good at sideboarding yet.  Hopefully this analysis has helped you in some way; to either improve your play with or against U/B control.  I'm definitely starting to enjoy Standard the more I play so expect more reports like this in the future.  Until then thanks for reading and remember to keep it weird guys!


  1. Duress makes me want to play Black or UB Control. And Volition Reins on a Koth makes people cry. :D

  2. Yeah, I certainly don't understand the current thinking that 4x Duress main is a mistake. Frankly it helps me beat just over 2/3's of the best decks in the game and it only hurts me in matches I was probably going to lose game 1 anyways. Inquisition is a very poor substitute.