Saturday, April 30, 2011

Snap Judgments #6.5 - Some additional thoughts on Sheoldred "Rock"

Hello everyone and welcome back to a special supplemental edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Recently as part of our ongoing "Snap Judgements" series we took some time to look at Sheoldred, Whispering One and how she might fit into a Standard build.  Unfortunately at the time I was busy writing some other articles so I simply threw out some possible ideas and card combinations that might work with her in standard.  To be fair I did note at the time that this was all off the top of my head but it still struck a chord with a number of readers; both positively and negatively.  In addition to a fascinating 8 person discussion on Twitter about possible permutations of the build I received a number of emails and private messages asking me for a deck-list I hadn't even built yet.  Additionally the following comment was posted by a reader on this very blog (Jim Bowie):

I think when you look at Sheo, you really need to compare her to the titans. The titans trigger happens as long as it resolves, and Sheo's sac effect doesn't. Sure, if you have it in play and your opponent passes the turn, you have the win, but you can say that for any titan. If you want to play toolbox, we already have the cheaper Sun Titan, and if you want the removal, Inferno Titan is there too. If you want a consistent sea of dudes, Grave Titan is there to back you up with a 2-turn kill. You say that the difference between 6 and 7 CMC isn't much, but in fact it's huge. Lotus Cobra +explore is all it takes to get to 6 mana on turn three. To get to seven, you have to have multiple cobras/explores. If you're playing a deck that ramps into bombs, you either need to get there on T3 like RUG does or you need to be playing Ulamog/Emrakul and resolve them by T4.    

First of all I'd like to thank Jim for his comment and apologize for replying in the form of a blog post.  I figured this was the best way to both share a decklist and respond to your comments.  Additionally as usual Blogger is acting funny and I'm having a hard time posting comments on my own blog; no really.  While I share a number of Jim's concerns I still feel the deck has a space in the upcoming metagame; particularly because of cards like Despise and Beast Within.  Sitting down over 3 separate 1 hour brainstorming sessions this is the deck I eventually came up with; once again keep in mind that I have done no testing with this deck whatsoever as many of the cards don't exist yet:

New Phyrexia Sheoldred "Rock" -G/B Midrange

Creatures - 19

4x Lotus Cobra
4x Fauna Shaman
2x Skinrender
1x Obstinate Baloth
1x Thrun, the Last Troll
2x Precursor Golem
1x Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief *
2x Grave Titan
2x Sheoldred, Whispering One

Spells - 16:

4x Despise/Inquisition of Kozilek
4x Explore
4x Beast Within
2x Birthing Pod
2x Garruk Wildspeaker

Land - 25:

4x Verdant Catacombs
4x Marsh Flats
4x Misty Rainforest
6x Forest
6x Swamp
1x Mystifying Maze

Now once again I'd like to remind you all that not only is this deck "a brew" but it's also made up of a bunch of cards I haven't even touched with my real hands yet; this is not a finish line but a starting point and I am 100% sure I've made mistakes in this build.  Okay with that out the way let's talk a little bit about this deck, what it's trying to do and why I think that might be a good thing in Standard once it becomes legal.

Overview:  While more experienced readers will immediately recognize this deck as a modern simulation of older (and successful) G/B "Rock" builds newer players are likely to be puzzled by all of the terminology I'm using here so let's start with a little history lesson.  From the Wikipedia entry on Magic the Gathering deck types we find the following (reasonably accurate) description of Mid Range decks:

"Midrange strategies seek to control the game's first few turns and then win in the middle turns with large, yet highly efficient, threats. The black-green "Rock" deck is one of the most common decks to execute this strategy: it uses cheap creature removal and discard in the early turns to disrupt aggro and combo decks, and then starts playing large creatures in the middle turns that are, if not removed, capable of ending the game quickly after hitting play."


I should also note that the Wiki article needs an update citing Shards of Alara era Jund; in my mind the G/R/B boogie-man from last arc is one of the greatest "mid range" decks every built.  For a more detailed description of "The Rock" in particular you should visit Magic Deck Vortex; they have a great primer on a classic Extended "Rock" list.  While obviously a little dated this should give you a reasonable idea of how this deck-type functions when it's working, although I should warn you immediately that I don't think they'll ever reprint a card as powerful as Pernicious Deed so there's little point in getting your hopes up on that front. :)

Okay so after using the magic of the internet to help us define "The Rock" we can essentially break the deck down into 4 major components:


1) Mana Acceleration - While I was quite tempted to play Birds of Paradise in the initial build I really couldn't find room for them; this deck could easily be 90 cards if you aren't careful while building it.  In this version of the deck I ultimately had to settle for 4x Lotus Cobra, 4x Explore, 2x Garruk Wildspeaker and 12 Zendikar "crack" lands.  Cobra/Cracklands were simply the most efficient way to make 6-7 mana on turns 3 and 4, Explore draws me a card and Garruk provides a secondary win condition when combined with Grave Titan or Precursor Golem; giving them the nod over the various 1 drop acceleration critters in the format. 


2) Early Game Disruption - Once again this part of the deck provided a series of hard choices; while the original Rock deck packed as many as 8 discard spells I really couldn't find room for that kind of action in a deck fueled by Fauna Shaman.  I also lacked Pernicious Deed to clear out early monsters and set up my mid-game which is probably fortunate because killing my own Cobras/Shamans isn't exactly a legit path to victory for this build.  Eventually I decided to run 4x Despise, 4x Beast Within and 2 "fetchable" Skinrenders to help keep my opponent down long enough to get the Sheoldred engine online or just beat him to death with Garruk/token-making monsters.  On a basic level I feel the current Standard format is all about creatures and Planeswalkers and I felt this package as a whole was my best weapon against format defining cards like Jace, Stoneforge Mystic, Primeval/Inferno Titans and the like.  It certainly doesn't hurt that a Beast Within can turn a Sword of Feast and Famine into a "boring" 3/3 creature either.  I was sorely tempted by Inquisition of Kozilek as a method of protecting my Cobras/Shamans and if I had the room I probably would have run a 3/2 split on Despise/IoK.  Ultimately however I think it's really important to accept that as a mid-range deck this build is *extremely* vulnerable against enemy Planeswalkers; when you're trying to prolong the game to turns 6-7 it's a pretty safe bet your opponent can do something interesting with a resolved Jace/Gideon/Koth/Tezerret.  For the moment I'm going to go with 8 cards than can directly attack said Planeswalkers and tweak later if playtesting proves it's too many.


3) Graveyard Recursion/Inevitability - Okay this one is going to be a little harder to explain; while obviously Sheoldred is the heart of the "reanimation package" in this deck there are several other cards that help you grind out longer games.  This starts with 2 copies of Sheoldred herself but I've added a whopping 6 additional ways to get her with 4x Fauna Shaman and 2x Birthing Pod.  Amusingly enough these cards also happen to put creatures in the graveyard, thus fueling Sheoldred even *while* you're fishing her out of the deck; that's synergy folks! :)  Is Birthing Pod a real card?  Actually I have no idea; I know that Food Chain was a very powerful effect but at this point with zero testing all I can say for sure is that on paper chaining a Baloth, into a Precursor, into a Grave Titan and finally into Sheoldred seems like a really cool idea.  If it doesn't work these slots will probably go back to being a 3rd Grave Titan and a 2nd Baloth (12 crack lands is a lot of life to lose).  Of course when you're talking about inevitability it would be silly to ignore the Grave Titan, Precursor Golem and Garruk's ultimate "overrun" ability; if your opponent won't let you get Sheoldred online just "stompling" him to death with tokens seems a legitimate backdoor victory condition in this build.  Finally of course you can always just fish out Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief once you have enough mana and just fly over top of your opponent while killing of his creatures turn after turn; again it's not exactly Genisis recursion but taking 7-6 Damage in the air per turn will force your opponent to kill Drana or die to her very quickly.  One of the major ideas I tried to incorporate into this design was multiple threats/paths to victory; your opponent should have to kill so many of your creatures that eventually something *will* stick and take you to the finish line.  Ideally that something should be Sheoldred but it really isn't necessary for the deck to win in my opinion.

4) Ridiculous "Finishers" That Make Tokens and End Games Quickly - This is pretty self explanatory; whereas old school Rock had Spirit Monger and Deranged Hermit this build runs Precursor Golem, Grave Titan, a singleton Drana and of course Sheoldred herself.  Even our "187" utility creatures aren't half bad beaters at 3/3 (Skinrender) and 4/4 (Baloth, Thrun).  Once again I should point out that all of these cards work pretty well with Garruk; after he helps you pay for them he quickly turns an army of mid sized beaters and tokens into a lethal threat.  The basic idea is that when combined with early disruption and mana acceleration virtually any one of these cards allows you to go over-top of what your opponent is doing.  Naturally of course this requires some playtesting; I may well have too many finishing creatures and not enough support for example.  Alternately while I'm pretty sure this matches up well with Caw Blade, Control and most combo decks in the format (Valakut, Pyromancers) I'm a little worried about losing to speed rush aggro.  Only time/testing will tell if this is the exact right mix.


Finally I should note that there are a few "pet cards" I am very fond of that I included in this deck; these slots are probably quite movable and likely someone much smarter than me will find a way to turn them into more removal, acceleration, recursion or discard somehow.  While this is probably the smart answer I have a hard time turning down the situational upside of cards like Thrun, Drana and Mystifying Maze.  As usual mileage may vary.


Well folks there you have it in all it's scrubbly glory; my first crack at a G/B Standard Sheoldred "Rock" deck.  Is this deck going to be good in Standard?  Actually I have no idea to be fair but I think it might be.  Right now the format basically revolves around 4 Planeswalkers, 2-3 Titans and a bunch of weenie creatures who generate card advantage and fish out Swords.  On paper this deck has a number of answers to these strategies while simultaneously going over-top of most of them with a much bigger endgame.  Of course on paper the Detroit Lions had a good draft this weekend but I'm still trying to figure out who'll play linebacker or corner next season; as always you never know anything until you play the games.  Feel free to tell me how awful you think the deck is in the comments and as always folks remember to keep it weird.





Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of Limited Interest #26 - "Five by Five"

Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.   As you can probably guess by the title we're back with an in-depth look at a Scars of Mirrodin block draft I participated in last Thursday.  This time however there's a twist; due to low turnout we only had 5 people show up to draft and were thus forced to play a round-robin tournament.  While naturally I would have preferred a full 8 man event, frankly I was just happy to be playing some Magic again so I didn't complain about the format too much.  As an additional bonus my good friend, co-worker and fellow Magic organizer Kelly Ackerman was attending the draft for the first time in months so playing together would give us a good opportunity to hang out for a while.  

The funny thing about a 5 man draft or for that matter any round-robin draft event is that you know with absolute certainty that you will eventually have to play against every single card you've passed.  This forces you to be extremely cognizant of the cards you are passing and their applications against the deck you are presently building.  Whats more the intimacy of a 5 player table makes it incredibly easy to identify what color combination and even deck strategy each of your opponent's are likely pursuing; there truly are no secrets in a 5 man draft with the exception of your first pick each pack.  

Opening my first pack I was disappointed to find myself staring at a Phyrexian Revoker and a pack generally full of mediocre cards.  While it's true the Revoker has some value and I actually expect it to be played more when Standard rotates in October I also happened to own like 11 copies of this card already.  I eventually settled on a Burn the Impure which while a decent consolation prize is probably one of the worst "acceptable" first pick cards in MBS.  It's a pretty rare limited deck that can successfully outrace a good Infect build which is what Burn the Impure is best at doing.  Additionally it can't actually kill most of the 5-6 casting cost "bomb" creatures in the format like other 1st pick removal spells can.  I'm not one to turn my nose up at any kind of removal no matter how marginal but if you're 1st picking a Burn the Impure in MBS it probably means you're holding a pretty soft pack and I most certainly was.  Thankfully Kelly shipped me an absolutely filthy second pack that was full of good cards in every single color and missing what clearly must have been an amazing rare/mythic.  Unfortunately a number of these cards were best in an Infect build (Rot Wolf, Core Prowler, Blightwidow) and I wasn't prepared to give up on my Burn the Impure that easily.  I grabbed an Into the Core (which I would have been happy to 1st pick) and after counting up the number of playable cards in the pack decided I would probably end up in red/blue if the Gust Skimmer in this pack tabled like I expected it to.  I should also mention that this pack had a Leonin Skyhunter in it which briefly tempted me to go into white before I realized there was also an Into the Core in the pack.  This was a good decision on my part because I didn't actually see many good white card until a couple of picks into pack 3.  My 3rd pick was a relatively unexciting Piston Sledge out of a fairly shallow pack with no removal spells whatsoever.  Things would get more exciting with my 4th pick however as Kelly passed me a pack with both a Strandwalker and a Spread the Sickness still inside.  While I was absolutely tempted to snap pick the removal spell I wasn't exactly enamored with jumping into black at this point in the draft.  I knew my opponent to the left was likely already in Infect and thus would probably be looking to play g/b as a matter of course.  Additionally I still figured I would probably end up in blue simply because I was going to table the Gustskimmer from pack 2.  As if to reinforce my opinion this pack *also* had a Gust Skimmer and enough solid cards in other colors that I had a reasonable chance of wheeling it as well.  Without hesitation I added the Strandwalker to my pile and calmly said "merry Christmas" as I passed the pack to Casey.  The last "new" pack would yield a late Serum Raker and my original pack came back with an Ogre Resister that I hadn't expected to table.  Naturally of course both Gust Skimmers would in fact table (sandwiched around a Spin Engine) and by pick 9 I was firmly in r/u.  Closing out pack 1 I managed to grab 4 more playable cards in my colors; Myr Sire, Crush, Copper Carapace and Fuel for the Cause.

With 13 playable cards going into pack 2 it's safe to say I was feeling pretty confident about my chances in this draft.  While obviously I didn't intend to main-deck every card I had drafted in MBS the fact that I could allowed me to focus on optimizing my build during packs 2 and 3 and not worry about reaching for cards just to fill out my bodies/removal ratio.  Once again I opened a pretty marginal rare (Myr Propagator) but this time I had no problem settling for an Oxidda Scrapmelter as my first pick in SoM.  By now I as pretty sure my opponent to the left was in Infect and he confirmed this by passing me a pack full of good metalcraft cards, a Revoke Existence and an Embersmith; the latter of which I snapped up quickly before shipping the pack right.  I proceeded to third pick a Tumble Magnet over basically nothing and found myself pleasantly surprised when my fourth pick produced a Turn to Slag.  My next two choices were Neurok and Vulshok Replica respectively over some choice green cards that I wasn't exactly comfortable passing at this point; Slice in Twain and Bellowing Tanglewurm.  Unfortunately right about then the pack basically dried up and I spent a few picks denying the best card not in my colors before closing out pack 2 with a late (10th) Soliton and a 12th pick Vedalken Certarch.         

Between packs 2 and 3 I took a few moments to take stock of my draft so far and found myself on 21 playable cards with 19 of them being cards I was fine with including in the main-deck.  While my deck was light on "bombs" I had an amazing removal package, a number of solid "beaters" and 3 power-boosting Equipment cards to attach to my flyers/Spin Engine.  Going into pack 3 I figured I was looking for a "finishing" creature, a couple more flyers and any removal cards that would represent a strict upgrade over what I already had.  Naturally of course this would lead to me opening a pack 3 Inexorable Tide and a bunch of phenomenal white and green cards; including an Arrest, a Cystbearer and a Razor Hippogriff.  Thankfully there was also a Contagion Clasp in the pack so I took that hoping to combo it with my Tumble Magnet from pack 2.  Once again Kelly passed me a pack with no rare and a bunch of sweet removal; this time I took a Galvanic Blast over a Grasp of Darkness and a Rust Tick.  The next pack turned out to be kind of frustrating because while it had a Turn to Slag it also had the Flameborn Hellion I was prepared to 3rd pick just to make sure I had *something* to finish the game with.  Unfortunately there was just no way I could talk myself out of drafting the removal spell and I (incorrectly) figured that the Flameborn Hellion had a reasonable chance of tabling anyways.  I should probably also mention that this pack had a True Conviction and a Myrsmith in it and had somehow gone through both players at the table I thought were playing white; to say this "bothered" me would be a severe understatement.  My 4th pick was another Neurok Replica; once again over basically nothing as all the good cards in the pack were green or Infect based.  Frustrated and hoping for some kinda miracle from the last new pack I was completely astonished to find myself starring at a Heavy Arbalest during my next pick.  While obviously not a "bomb" creature the "big crossbow" would combo out with my Soliton to win the game assuming I had enough Islands in play.  Sadly I don't actually remember anything else about this pack simply because I was so shocked at my own pack luck that I snapped the Arbalest without bothering to memorize the other cards.  I also managed to table the Iron Myr from my first pack and followed that up with a Snapsail Glider; giving me a 4th flying monster to carry my various Equipment cards.  Once again however the packs dried up pretty quickly after that point; in between deny drafting green/white cards the only thing I took for my deck the rest of pack 3 was a singleton Turn Aside.                    

Due to the sheer number of playable cards I'd drafted it actually took me quite a while to settle on a final build before my first round.  This left me in the position of having a round 1 bye while the other four players squared off but I didn't really mind since I needed the extra time to build anyways.  After an excruciating 15-20 minute process of culling excess but still quality cards this is the deck I finally settled on:

"Molten Rain" - R/U Control:

Creatures - 13:

1x Vedalken Certarch
1x Embersmith
2x Gust Skimmer
1x Iron Myr
2x Neurok Replica
1x Snapsail Glider
1x Spin Engine
1x Ogre Resister
1x Oxidda Scrapmelter
1x Serum Raker
1x Soliton

Spells -11:

1x Copper Carapace
1x Galvanic Blast
1x Burn the Impure
1x Contagion Clasp
1x Heavy Arbalest
1x Piston Sledge
1x Tumble Magnet
1x Into the Core
1x Strandwalker * really a creature to be fair
2x Turn to Slag

Lands - 17:

8x Island
9x Mountain

Functional Sideboard - 5:

1x Crush
1x Turn Aside
1x Myr Sire
1x Vulshok Replica
1x Fuel for the Cause

The first thing that comes to mind when looking at this deck is it's overriding simplicity.  This deck wants to play an early beater, strap on some power-boosting gear and go to town on enemy life total's while burning/bouncing/tapping out virtually every monster on your opponent's side.  If the truth be told I generally prefer decks with more synergy and 2-card combos when drafting Scars but the overall quality and consistently of the removal in this build makes that somewhat irrelevant.  It's pretty easy to bash your opponent down with geared-up Hill Giants if he can't keep an untapped creature alive to block and even if the games did go long I could always rely on Soliton/Arbalest or Contagion Clasp/Tumble Magnet to get me out of trouble.  While not exactly "slow" this deck certainly falls into the "mid range control" category since it will likely start every game on the defensive until it can "assemble" a finishing monster and draw/cast enough control effects to start getting through with it.  Going into the tournament portion of the event I felt reasonably confident that I was holding a 3-1/4-0 type deck.

Round 1 - Scott: U/B Aggro/Proliferate:

I was mildly worried heading into this round because my opponent was already 1-0 and had dispatched what I knew was a *very* effective G/B infect deck in 2 quick games.  As it turns out Scott was playing a weird hybrid deck with a number of flyers, equipment and proliferate effects backed up by a couple of expensive "bombs" in Volition Reins and Quicksilver Gargantuan.  Unfortunately for him the specialized nature of his creatures would make for a poor match-up against all of my burn but sitting down to play I had no way of knowing that.

Game 1 started off poorly for Scott and fairly well for me.  By turn 4 I had a Myr, an Ogre Resister, a Neurok Replica and a Copper Carapace in play against Scott's board of Oculus and Riddlesmith.  Strapping up the Resister on my next turn I started bashing and Scott started blocking; trying to draw into some sort of answer for the resister.  Eventually he did manage to bin the Ogre with a Go for the Throat but when I dropped a Snapsail Glider, Strandwalker and Vedalken Certarch into play over the course of 2 turns the game quickly turned against him.  I should probably mention that Scott drew absolutely no creatures that cost more than 4 the entire game and still managed to hit me a couple times with a Necrogen Scudder wearing a Barbed Battlegear.

Game 2 actually started out worse for Scott as I quickly ran out a turn 2 Embersmith and was able to cast back to back artifacts to kill 1 toughness blockers in the early game, including a Vedalken Certarch.  Thankfully he managed to stabilize with a Wall of Tanglecord and for a while we traded removal spells while my 2/1 Embersmith bounced off his 0/6 Wall.  Eventually however I drew into the Scrapmelter and destroyed the wall only to have Scott kill it and cast out his own Necrogen Scudder.  Unfortunately my deck started to stall out at this point and I was left tapping out his Scudder with my Certarch and getting through for 1-2 damage each turn with a bunch of 1 power "durdles".  Making matters worse Scott started drawing creatures turn after turn and began to overwhelm my defenses; after blocking and trading off a number of creatures I was staring down a Scudder, a Rager and a a Screeching Silcaw with a Barbed Battlegear.  Then by an extreme stroke of luck my opponent cast a Silverskin Armor and attached it to his Rager before shipping the turn back to me.  After untapping and dropping an Into the Core on both his Rager and the Battlegear the game rapidly shifted back in my favor.  It certainly didn't help when I top-decked the Oxxida Scrapmelter the turn after he attached the Armor to his last defender; a Plated Seastrider.  Eventually after drawing a few more cards and failing to find either Volition Reins or his Quicksilver Gargantuan Scott conceded with lethal damage next turn on board.

1-0 (2-0) MVP - Having an absolutely disgusting amount of removal.  Both games were defined by Scott's inability to keep creatures in play in the face of 5-7 removal spells a game.

Round 2 - Lucas: W/R Aggro:

I had the fortune of watching my round 2 opponent close out his first match while I was on the early bye and thus knew I was potentially in for a long day.  Lucas's deck was built around a number of cheap fast flying creatures, some equipment, a smattering of removal and two sick bombs in True Conviction and Horde-Smelter Dragon.  While I wasn't exactly terrified of the Dragon with 2 copies of Turn to Slag in my deck I was worried about the True Conviction; aside from a sideboarded Fuel for the Cause I had absolutely no way of dealing with his monster enchantment.

Game 1 started out strong for Lucas; he quickly played out a Sylvok Life Staff, a Glint Hawk Idol and a random 2/2 "Bear" (Auriok Edgewright?).  On my side I had played out an Iron Myr and used it to cast a Neurok Replica but after missing my land drop on turn 3 was forced to watch in horror as Lucas dropped a Blisterstick Shaman on my Myr; effectively trapping the Ogre Resister in my hand.  Thankfully I was able to start drawing lands in the next few turns and Lucas and I went into a holding pattern while trading small creatures and removal spells.  Lucas had gotten stuck on 5 mana and seemed pretty eager to draw one so I knew he was holding either the Horde-Smelter or the True Conviction; I had been slow rolling a Turn to Slag (and eating damage from a Life Staff as a result) for several turns because of the Dragon but I figured I was in a lot of trouble if he dropped the enchantment at that point.  When I finally drew the Heavy Arbalest I decided I should probably "go for it" and attacked with a couple Gust Skimmers and an Ogre Resister; unfortunately Lucas had a Burn the Impure for the Resister and all I could do post combat was cast but not hook up the Arbalest.  Naturally at this exact moment Lucas draws the 6th land and immediately drops True Conviction before bashing in for what would be 12 (leaving a 2/2 "bear" back on defense); I dropped a Galvanic blast on one of his creatures to reduce the damage to 6 but was forced to hook up the Arbalest and leave a Gust Skimmer behind to block on my turn.  When Lucas attacked on his next turn I killed one of his creatures and sacrificed the Gust Skimmer to keep him from gaining extra life on the double strike.  Lucas proceeded to cast out both of his remaining creatures and after drawing a land I spent my next two turns casting Turn to Slag and Soliton while my opponent drew nothing but land.  Due to his earlier life-gain shenanigans it actually took me two entire turns/attacks to kill him with the Soliton but eventually the "big crossbow" got there.

Unfortunately after our epic game 1 Lucas and I were in for a letdown in game 2.  He got stuck on 4 lands and I quite literally killed all 5 creatures he played during the entire game.  He was able to kill my Ogre Resister and a Snapsail Glider but eventually I beat him down to zero with a Serum Raker holding a Copper Carapace. 

2-0 (4-0) MVP - Heavy Arbalest - This was a tough call because I actually won game 1 due to the Soliton's un-tap ability but I probably wouldn't have gotten to that point in the game without using the Arbalest to not "just die" to True Conviction.

Round 3 - Casey: G/B Infect Aggro:

Going into this round my opponent was already staring an 0-3 record in the face and looking to end the night on a high note by playing the spoiler against me.  I on the other hand was somewhat astonished by Casey's record because I *knew* for a fact he had a very sick infect build going; after all I'd passed 2/3's of it to him.  In MBS alone I had shipped him a Blightwidow, Spread the Sickness, Sceptic Rats and a Viridian Corrupter and as the only infect player at the table he'd actually managed to wheel a pack 3 Corpse Cur right in front of my eyes.  As it turned out he had also opened a Black Sun's Zenith in MBS but unfortunately had been fighting an uphill battle against mana flood/mana screw all night and thus losing despite his amazing deck.  As we shuffled up to start playing I sincerely wished him good luck and hoped that his deck would be more kind in our match; there's nothing more frustrating than drafting a stone nut top flight deck and then losing to basic land. 

Unfortunately both of my games against Casey actually followed the exact same pattern in what must have been a frustrating match for my opponent.  In the early game I would cast out 2-3 creatures and begin attacking/aggressively trading on defense to keep his creature #'s down.  He would then wipe the board with his Black Sun Zenith and I would respond by casting a "beater" (Resister/Serum Raker/Soliton, etc) and strapping some equipment to it.  I would then kill every single creature Casey cast for the rest of the game; when he played the Septic Rats I responded with Burn the Impure, when he cast a Blightwidow I had a Turn to Slag, etc.  He was able to hold me off for a while with spot removal/Viridian Corrupter but eventually I'd draw another beater and start the smashing all over again.  While Casey's draws were pretty average in my honest opinion this just wasn't a very good match-up for his deck style.  While I genuinely believe that G/B Infect Aggro is the best poison deck in the format I would likely have had a much harder time against a more control-ish version of the deck with Trigon of Corruption and some proliferate effects for inevitability.

3-0 (6-0) MVP - My deck matching up perfectly with his deck/drawing enough removal to kill every creature my opponent cast over the course of 2 games.  This seems pretty self explanatory.

Round 4 - Kelly: W/G/r Dinosaurs:

Once again due to the magic of byes I'd already had a chance to scout a little bit of my opponent's deck and knew he had a number of solid "dinosaurs", some cheap white creatures, a decent smattering of removal (including 2 splashed Arc Trails) and a Hero of Bladehold.  I knew about the Hero because Lucas had bemoaned losing game 1 on the draw to a turn 3 Hero both audibly and for quite some time after it occurred.  As the final icing on the cake Kelly had something like 3-4 copies of Viridian Emissary to clog up the early game and make sure he could actually cast his Dinosaurs.  At this point Kelly was 2-1 and a win here for him would generate a 3 way tie at 3-1 between him, Lucas and myself; sending us to game record as a tie-breaker immediately.  Shuffling up I wished Kelly luck but not too much; I figured at 3-0, 6-0 I was a shoe-in for 1st place if I won even a single game in this match.

Game 1 started out weird with both of us "racing" even though neither of our decks were particularly well suited to do so.  Kelly was beating down on the ground with a Viridian Emissary and a random durdle while I was crashing back in the air with a Gust Skimmer.  Eventually I drew into a Neurok Replica followed by an Embersmith and after taking about 6 damage from the Emissary decided to *snipe* it with the Embersmith on my next turn.  This unfortunately put Kelly on 5 mana which let him drop Tangle Hulk, Molder Beast and Tangle Hulk on successive turns.  Fortunately I was able to blunt his assault by casting a Scrapmelter on the first Tangle Hulk, Burn the Impure on the Molder Beast and a top-decked Into the Core to take out his 2nd Hulk and a random equipment.  Although I managed to walk my Serum Raker into an Arc Trail later in the game I was still able to pull out the victory behind a Scrapmelter wearing a Piston Sledge pretty quickly after that.

Unfortunately game 2 would end up something of a travesty; Kelly kept an opening hand with 3 mana and 2 copies of Viridian Emissary only to draw something like 10 more land and 4 more spells.  While I kept a draw that was somewhat removal light I also curved out perfectly with a turn 2 Myr into a turn 3 Resister with Soliton and Strandwalker following soon after.  Kelly kept me busy for a while with an Arc Trail and a Slice in Twain but eventually drawing nothing but land was simply too much to overcome.  I should also note that he didn't see his Hero of Bladehold in either game; in game 2 especially I did not draw either copy of Turn to Slag so that likely would have been the difference.

4-0 (8-0) - MVP - My opponent's inability to draw creatures in game 2.  Locally Kelly is known for being an extremely lucky top-deck artist but I've personally never understood it.  He's a very strong player when he's focused so I think a lot of people mistake "playing to his outs" for luck.  There's no way you can tell me either of Kelly's draws this match were "lucky" for example.

Looking back on this draft I would have to say the most interesting thing about it is the perfect color balance we achieved at a 5 player table.  Each player independently chose a separate 2 color combination within the first 5 picks of the draft with no repeats (U/R, W/R, W/G, G/B, U/B).  Additionally each color in the format was represented exactly twice with the exception of Kelly splashing red for 2 copies of Arc Trail.  There was very little deny drafting going on as far as I could tell and everyone seemed clearly focused on making the best deck possible within their chosen colors/archetype.  This lead to a very balanced draft with all 5 decks being of exceptionally high quality in my opinion.  To be honest I still think Casey's Infect build was the best deck of the lot but his land troubles made the point difficult to prove as the evening wore on.  All in all however I found the color/archetype breakdown fascinating personally and credit this moreso than winning the tournament for the amazing time I had playing in this draft.

Well folks there you have it; another tale of adventure and woe from SoM block draft-land.  Hopefully you've enjoyed this article and found it helpful in some way.  To be honest I'm starting to get a little sick of drafting MBS/SoM/SoM at this point and like most of you I'm pretty eager to start drafting New Phyrexia.  MBS is certainly a fun set but I'm starting to run out of interesting deck-types to explore.  I've won a tournament with just about everything except G/W Infect at this point and I really have no intention of playing Tine Shrikes all night anytime soon.  Until next time remember that 2-3 good equipments and a pile of removal is most certainly a legitimate archetype in SoM block draft and always keep it weird gang.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Snap Judgments #6 - Sheoldred, Whispering One

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started I'd like to thank everyone for the *numerous* get well emails and tweets I have received from readers out there in Internetland.  As it turns out I am starting to feel a bit better despite the fact that Toronto's weather recently has resembled the climate of Scotland; cold, wet and very windy.  In fact with any luck I'll actually be allowed to head out for FNM this week and play some sanctioned Standard for the first time in over a month.  Until then however I'm practicing with some friends after hours at work and desperately waiting on information about New Phyrexia just like everyone else.

By now most of you are aware that the entire New Phyrexia set has been leaked; if you haven't seen it yet click on this link, a full text spoiler can be found in the very first post.  If you don't see the cards right away try clicking on the color-marked buttons; it will open up a text box containing *every* card in the set of that color.  Naturally of course I have absolutely no idea how this information was originally leaked but reading the cards I have a hard time believing it's a fake; those certainly look like Magic cards to me.  As regular readers know during preview time for a new set I like to set aside a couple articles to look at some of the new cards that interest me most and talk a little bit about their potential in the formats I play; namely Standard, Sealed Deck and Booster Draft.  Until otherwise noted I'll operate under the assumption that the above spoiler is 100% correct but for the first card I'd like to talk about it doesn't matter anyways because WotC previewed it on Monday as the New Phyrexia Pre-release Promo:    

The first thing that comes to my mind looking at a card like this is "that can't possibly be real".  My second thought was "wow 7 is a lot of mana though" which was quickly followed by "I don't care I have *got* to find a way to cast this card".  As a point of historical reference I should probably mention that I felt this exact same way about Grave Titan and that certainly worked out okay.

From a limited perspective Sheoldred is obviously a slam first pick; remember the new pack order rules for Draft mean you'll open New Phyrexia first and I'm pretty sure this guy is worth jumping head-first into black for.  This card is going to destroy games because not only is a 6/6 body with limited evasion (Swampwalk) an acceptable value in draft but both of it's upkeep triggers are absolutely devastating to your opponent's board position.  Think about it for a moment; you cast Sheoldred and go up a creature before shipping the turn and causing your opponent to go down a creature for a net advantage of +2 creatures.  Assuming your opponent doesn't snap kill your Praetor your next turn becomes ridiculous; you return a creature to play (+3), attack and likely force a chump block (+4) and then ship the turn back to your opponent who loses yet ANOTHER creature (+5).  Simply put, much like Consecrated Sphinx from Mirrodin Besieged if you do not kill Sheoldred very quickly after it hits the table you will probably lose the game to this card almost immediately.  What's more at 6/6 and with a colored border it's not exactly going to be easy to kill Sheoldred; format staples like Gavlanic Blast, Grasp of Darkness, Turn to Slag and anything that says "target artifact" will be virtually worthless against it.  Even Arrest and Tumble Magnet will offer little respite from Sheoldred's upkeep triggers; in fact I'd go so far as to say your typical R/W Metalcraft deck is just dead on board to this bad-boy unless you're dumb enough to walk it into a Dispense Justice.  While obviously the card can be answered by Spread the Sickness or Go for the Throat that's hardly a comforting thought to the 4-6 players at your draft table *not* in black.  Potentially the best answer however can be found in blue where either Corrupted Conscience or Volition Reins will not only solve your "Sheoldred" problem but create a whole new series of headaches for your opponent on his very next upkeep. 

Now that we've established that Sheoldred is a house in limited let's talk a little bit about how I think he might fit into the Standard format; make no mistake despite his 7 CMC I firmly expect this card to hit tables almost as soon as New Phyrexia is tournament legal.   The reasoning behind this theory behind this is simple; even at 7 mana Sheoldred still represents incredible value.  How so?  Let's take a look at some previously printed cards with similar abilities to Sheoldred and compare them in terms of value for mana cost.  In my mind the most obvious historical comparison is Reya Dawnbringer; both creatures are legendary, both of them have a form of evasion (flying, swampwalk) and both of them resurrect a creature from your graveyard at the start of your upkeep.  That is however where the comparisons end because Reya costs a whopping *9* mana including WWW and she only has 4 power compared to our Praetor's 6.  I guess you could argue that flying is better than swampwalk (it is) but is it really W1 better?  I think the answer there is a definitive no.  Throw in the fact that Sheoldred is a black creature and thus immune to the still reasonably popular Doom Blade in Standard and it's fair to say that even without counting Sheoldred's 2nd upkeep trigger it's a better card than Reya is.  Of course despite being a casual/EDH staple to this very day it's not like Reya saw a lot of tournament play in her time.  I recall her being a fairly important "1 of" in Entomb based Re-animator decks during Invasion block but she was no Psychatog; something about costing 9 mana in a format dominated by 4CC spells (Fact or Fiction, Flame Tongue Kavu, Mystic Enforcer) just kept her from truly shining.  Still in terms of power level comparison we're talking about getting essentially the same game wrecking ability on a significantly better "beatstick" type body for 2 less mana that's easier to make color-wise.  When you factor in that the current Standard format is littered with quality 6 drop cards (Titan cycle, Wurmcoil Engine, Volition Reins, etc) it's really not a stretch to see paying 7 mana just for the 6/6 swampwalk body and the ability to resurrect a creature every turn.   In my opinion Sheoldred compares favorably to Avenger of Zendikar and Gaea's Revenge and I still run those cards in Valakut today for example.   

Okay so now that we've talked about Sheoldred's first ability and it's value in terms of mana cost let's examine it's *2nd* triggered ability a little closer.  Unfortunately there really is no historical comparison this time but the closest example is probably The Abyss from Legends.  As the first upkeep sacrifice trigger in Magic this card holds a special place in the hearts of Vintage players and later cards printed with this ability (Magus of the Abyss, Kuon, Ogre AscendantAnowon, the Ruin Sage) are described as having "Abyss" effects.  As you can see there's a certain historical precedent for *symmetrical* Abyss effects to cost 4 or more mana; as far as I know there has never been a one-sided Abyss effect printed in Magic until now and you can certainly bet if there had been it would cost more than 4 simply to stay in line with established design principles.  Forcing your opponent to sacrifice a creature every upkeep is a *very* powerful ability in it's own right but when combined with Sheoldred's "resurrection" effect it becomes almost impossible for your opponent to maintain board parity; even if he's drawing more cards than you are!  This is particularly true in a format dominated by "187" creatures and self replicated birds wielding game-wrecking Swords since virtually every deck in the format relies on multiple key creatures in at least some way.  It's also pretty hard to protect your Planeswalkers long term if you keep having to sacrifice potential chump blockers at the start of your upkeep while staring down an ever growing hoard of enemy minions.  On a basic level we're talking about a creature who beats down for 6, generates massive amounts of pseudo-card advantage (permanent advantage?) and functions as the centerpiece of a control package by killing off enemy creatures turn after turn.  Comparable (but worse) abilities would cost you roughly 8-11 mana over at least 2 cards in previous arcs and those arcs weren't nearly as ramp friendly as the current Standard format is.  If the truth be told Sheoldred is an absolute bargain at 7 mana so now the question becomes "how do I make that much mana?"

While I certainly doubt this card will survive into the post Innestrad Standard environment the current "gold seal" ramp card in the format is probably Lotus Cobra.  While it's true that green/black is hardly the most synergistic combination the inclusion of 4x Verdant Catacombs, 4x Evolving Wilds, 2x Misty Rainforests and 2x Marsh Flats should make for a reasonably smooth mana base if you're running Cobras as part of your ramp strategy.  Other possibilities that work well with your snakes include Explore, Harrow and to a lesser (although safer) degree Cultivate.  I would also be tempted to try a couple copies of Garruk in the build but I've always had a serious crush on the mono-green Planeswalker so that's hardly a shocker.  Fauna Shaman might also be a natural inclusion in a Sheoldred deck simply so you can avoid running more than 1-2 copies of your Legendary creature and go fish it up when you're ready to cast it.  I've never been sold on the value of Bloodghast outside of a Vampires deck but it does have decent synergy with Fauna Shaman in a deck running 12 "crack"-lands so that's likely worth exploring as well.  In terms of early disruption it's probably pretty easy to mash together some combination of Despise (New Phyrexia), Go for the Throat and Inquisition of Kozilek without burning away too many spots.  Finally you'll want to run a number of 1 of "toolbox" type finishing creatures; both so you'll have something to resurrect with Sheoldred and because Fauna Shaman can tutor the up easily.  Green cards that spring to mind include Thrun, Acidic Slime, Avenger of Zendikar and or possibly Gaea's Revenge.  Black cards you might want to tutor for include Skinrender, Grave Titan, Vampire Hexmage and if you're a sucker for win conditions that also kill things like I am Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief.  Naturally these are just ideas off the top of my head but it's certainly pretty easy to see how a g/b deck built around Sheoldred could take shape in the post New Phyrexia environment.  There are now doubt an absolutely *huge* number of cards I've forgotten that could work well in such a build and I look forward to having my face smashed in by the best of them once Sheoldred becomes legal.

Well folks there you have it; a quick look at one of my favorite cards from New Phyrexia.  While some (most?) will call me crazy I truly believe that at some point this card is going to carve it's own way into the Metagame and the results with be both brutal and beautiful at the same time.  Agree?  Disagree?  As always leave your thoughts in the comments and once again thanks for reading.  Until next time always remember that "too expensive" is in the mind of the buyer and sometimes it's all about "going big" with a giant freaking Praetor.  Keep it weird gang.



Friday, April 15, 2011

Standard Deviations #13 - Knightwing (U/W Fish)

* This article was originally intended for a Tuesday April 12th release.  Unfortunately at 5AM on April 11th the author's family lost it's feline matriarch, the mighty warrior Squeak.  Understandably the author was unable to finish the article on time while celebrating Squeak's life and mourning her passing.  The author asks that you please forgive the length of time between articles; this has clearly not been the best month of her life.*

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Before we get started I'd like to thank Kyle for his email reminding me that I haven't written an article about Standard in more than a month.  Unfortunately as I've mentioned previously I haven't been attending a lot of Standard tournaments recently due to illness; the store I play Standard at is about an hour away from my apartment by subway. Truthfully however that doesn't mean I haven't been playing a lot of Standard as most of my playgroup has been hanging around the apartment recently play-testing for upcoming National Qualifiers season.  While I've been sworn to secrecy regarding a number of the decks and sideboard strategies we're testing, I am perfectly free to write about decks I built outside of the group.  Today I'd like to take a look at a variation on Caw-blade that I have been tinkering with for more than a month now after having a conversation with local deck brewers Luke Wilkinson and Adam Dexter.  At the time I was really struggling to make Caw-Blade work in our  aggro/red/Valakut dominated environment and the 3 of us spent a smoke break outside trading deck tech.  While ultimately my build would vary greatly from theirs in the final production I was intrigued by a number of ideas; most notably the inclusion of Mirran Crusader in the main deck to both maximize the value of "Swords" and significantly increase threat density.  Naturally of course I also drew heavily on the Japanese build that ran 2x maindeck Crusaders at Worlds and the Channel Fireball decks that were featured in LSV's recent Standard series before finally arriving at this variation on the theme:

"Knightwing - U/W "Fish":

Creatures: - 12:

4x Squadron Hawk
4x Stoneforge Mystic
4x Mirran Cruasder

Instants - 8:

4x Spell Pierce
4x Mana Leak

Sorceries and Planeswalkers - 11:

4x Preordain
2x Day of Judgment
3x Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2x Gideon Jura

Artifacts - 4:

1x Sword of Body and Mind
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
2x Tumble Magnet

Lands - 25:

4x Celestial Colonnade
4x Glacial Fortress
4x Seachrome Coast
5x Island
5x Plains
3x Tectonic Edge

Sideboard - 15:

3x Condemn
2x Celestial Purge
3x Flash Freeze
2x Revoke Existence
1x Day of Judgment
1x Thada Adel, Aquisitor
2x Baneslayer Angel
1x Sun Titan

Overview:  At it's heart this deck is a classic example of a "Fish" or "Aggro-Control" strategy.  By combining hyper-efficient creatures, cheap disruption spells and both Standard-legal "Swords" you get a deck capable of adopting both the aggro and control roles on a turn by turn basis.  This of course makes the deck extremely difficult to play against because it represents a constantly shifting target and can easily adapt it's play-style based on current board state or the inherent weaknesses of the opposing build.  Conversely this is also a very difficult deck to play well; winning requires an intricate understanding of both decks in the match and the ability to play around what your opponent is *likely* to do while simultaneously working towards your own win conditions.  Basically what makes this deck so strong is that every spell costs very little compared to it's board impact (Mystic, Crusader especially) so you can sneak out a threat early and disrupt your opponent's attempts to counter it OR you can grind the game out with counters/Jace before finishing it quickly with Swords and Crusaders.  What's more the deck is so flexible that you can actually change strategies mid game if your line of play isn't working out or the cards on top of your deck aren't co-operating.  This is an extremely powerful deck but the fact is it's hard to play, requires a lot of foresight and is completely unforgiving of pilot errors.  While many of these same things can be said about "netdeck" Cawblade at the moment the inclusion of Mirran Cruasder significantly improves Knightwing's aggro options while simultaneously making the deck less dependent on finding a Mystic/Sword to close out the match.  This has the added side effect of making the deck significantly stronger against both Valakut and RDW; decks I was struggling against during testing with classic Caw-Blade.

What I think it's good at:  To be perfectly honest the answer to this question is "everything".  When played properly by a skilled pilot who understands the sideboard well I don't feel this deck is the underdog against any of the other 5 "tier 1" decks in the format (RUG, Valakut, RDW, Boros and Vampires).  While you'll certainly lose a fair share of game 1's to Boros and RDW the truth is Caw Blade decks have some of the most diverse and effective sideboard options in the format making it fairly easy to sweep games 2 and 3 in these match-ups.  Much like Valakut this deck also has the added advantage of destroying most of the "B" strategies in the format; in testing I have registered decisive victories over U/B Control, Tezzeret (both Infect and non), G/W Quest and a number of artifact/Tempered Steel based aggro decks.  Unfortunately as previously mentioned the amount of practice and mental effort required to play the deck flawlessly is tremendous; I estimate it took me at least 60 games to figure out exactly what the deck was trying to do at any given moment.  It then took me another 30 or so games to learn how to play it properly and finish tweaking the last 15 or so slots in the deck.  Unfortunately this steep learning curve has convinced many players that their built "has a good match against Caw Blade" because they are capable of beating inexperienced opponents piloting one of the many variations on the build.  Trust me; 200 some odd games later I am utterly convinced that this deck or something very close to it represents the strongest archetype in Standard.

What I think it's not good at:  In terms of bad match ups I really don't think this deck has many.  As previously mentioned it can struggle against Boros and RDW in game 1.  Additionally I've lost more than a couple games against RUG when my opponent drew "the nuts" simply because Knightwing struggles to contain their Lotus Cobras. Ultimately however I feel both of these problems are adequately addressed in the sideboard.  One match I *have* struggled with in both pre and post board games is Kuldotha Goblins.  K-Gobs particular combination of cheap/free creatures, haste and just enough spot removal to clear out blockers gives Knightwing fits in the early game.  On some of their best draws the K-Gob player can actually kill you before you've had *time* to cast a Day of Judgment!  Once again this match up is addressed in the sideboard but in this case I still find it difficult to win games 2 and 3 against this archetype; they are simply too fast.  Thankfully this deck under-performs against a number of other Tier 1 strategies (Valakut, Boros, even Vampires) so you don't tend to see it later on in larger tournaments.  I have also struggled to maintain a 50/50 win ratio against well piloted Pyromancer's Ascenssion and I almost *always* lose game 1.  Finally while I don't think Knightwing has many *bad* matchups in Standard it can struggle against 3 specific cards in the format; Vengvine, Goblin Guide (in multiples) and Inquisition of Kozilek (also in multiples).  That certainly isn't meant to imply the deck can't answer these cards but it can struggle to do so in the early game/before sideboard. 

What the Sideboard does:  Over the past few months I've found myself slowly shifting my sideboard style away from "silver bullet" meta cards and more towards a blanket coverage effect.  Basically this means breaking the sideboard down into number of 2-3 card sets that work well in several situations and then blending multiple sets into an appropriate game 2 sideboard depending on the match-up.  While the obvious trade off is raw power this type of sideboard allows you to meta against a much larger number of decks/strategies simultaneously.   This is particularly effective in a deck with Preordain and Jace, the Mind Sculptor; with all that card draw/brainstorming you're actively rewarded for choosing versatility over 4x copies of specific meta cards.  In fact I would go so far as to say that the only single use "silver bullet" meta cards in this sideboard are the 3 copies of Flashfreeze which are included entirely to help shut down Valakut (sometimes I bring in 2 copies against RUG as well).  On the opposite end of the spectrum the 3 copies of Condemn serve as a sort of catch all answer against fast aggro (RDW, Boros, Goblins, etc) while simultaneously attacking problem cards like Vengevine and Bloodghast directly.  Heck, sometimes I even board it in the mirror if I'm on the draw since you can "timewalk" a Sword activation by Condemning the creature carrying it before it ever hits you.  It's also pretty easy to slide underneath a Mana Leak/Spell Pierce which makes it a huge upgrade over Day of Judgement in Caw-blade on Caw-blade battles.  Another good example of choosing versatility over power in this sideboard can be found in the selection of 2x Revoke Existence over the traditional choice; Divine Offering.  By trading off some life gain and downgrading from an Instant to a Sorcery you gain the ability to attack echantments, Wurmcoil Engine and Molten-Tail Masticore while still directly metaing against enemy Swords.  This is particularly effective if your opponent is running Sun Titan since Revoke will remove the Sword from the game; in a long grindy board situation being able to return *your* Swords while forever denying his certainly has value.  Obviously Revoke is also pretty good against any artifact or enchantment I haven't listed here but be wary of Infect; you can't use a Sorcery speed kill spell to take out an Inkmoth Nexus (barring Tezzeret shenanigans).  The 2 copies of Celstial Purge may seem out of place at first but they actually fit the versatility theme quite well in the current environment and help support an number of other cards in the sideboard.  Against mono red or Vampires they often act as a 4th and 5th Condemn while also helping against problem cards like Koth of the Hammer, Creeping Tar Pit, Inferno Titan, Pyromancer's Ascension, Grave Titan and Raging Ravine.  Rounding out the removal package is a singleton copy of Day of Judgment; frankly I'm not very fond of this card because it's so slow but there are still some match ups you can't win without it.  As a general guideline I usually bring this card in against anything with 24+ creatures or any deck that *has* to play 3 creatures on the table to kill me; so Boros, Goblins, Elves, uh yeah.  Hiding a 3rd copy in the sideboard allows you to increase consistency when you need it without mucking up the main deck with what is essentially a "bad" card in 60% of your match ups.   In terms of creatures the deck packs 2 copies of Baneslayer Angel primarily as aggro meta but also to "go big" in the mirror; it's actually very hard to slide a Hawk carrying a Sword past a 5/5 Flying, First Strike Angel and she wields *your* Swords as well as any creature in the deck.  One thing I should mention is that while BSA is an excellent answer to Mono red decks in games 2 and 3 many of them will bring in Mark of Mutiny from their sideboards so always be sure to leave a Hawk back to block when you play it.  Losing to your own geared up flying Angel is pretty embarrassing.  The lone copy of Sun Titan is included primarily to replay your Swords against artifact destruction but he also acts as a 4th copy of Tectonic Edge (assuming you've seen one this game), can fatally block an enemy Grave/Inferno Titan and even helps counteract their Tectonic Edges in the mirror.  Finally I included Thada Adel, Acquisitor as a "techy" way to interact with enemy artifacts; particularly in decks with Islands.  While ostensible included to control enemy Swords the fact is a lot decks are running at least 3-4 artifacts these days.  I've stolen Tumble Magnets and Wurmcoil Engines with Thada and exiled my opponent's lone Blightsteel Colossus before he could ever fish it out.  Even if you "wiff" and can't find an artifact you get to look at your opponent's entire library in the process; making it fairly easy to figure out his exact post sideboard build and even reconstruct his hand in your head if you know the format well enough.           

How to play it:  Ladies and gentlemen I'm going to be honest with you right now; if I could explain how to play any version of Caw Blade in a few easy steps I'd probably be getting paid for my writing. :)  Simply put this archetype is very difficult to master and doesn't produce the same results for inexperienced pilots as it does for well practiced players.  The best I can hope for here is to offer a basic primer on the two most common lines of play the deck will adopt and how to play them against some of the more popular decks in Standard.

The first and in my opinion preferable line of play for this deck is to go "full aggro" with a turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic leading into a turn 3 Crusader and going to war with a Sword on turn 4.  Against decks with good removal suites you may be forced to wait until turn 5 when you can back up your equip action with a Spell Pierce but the point stands; drop a threat, sword it up and go for the jugular.  By seizing the momentum early you force your opponent to contain the super cheap threats you're playing; which in turn walks him directly into the reactive side of your deck (Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Gideon, etc).  The key at this point is not to get greedy; once you've established a threat, a Sword and a back-up creature (usually the mystic) the only card you should even consider playing is Jace, the Mind Sculptor to find *more* counterspells.  Not only does this allow you to keep your mana up for counter-magic but it ensures that if your opponent actually DOES answer your threat and stop the bleeding you can simply play out another Bird/Crusader or two and restart the party all over again!  This line of play is your default option against Control, Combo and mirror matches against other Fish decks assuming you are on the play. 

Alternately Knightwing can seek to adopt the "control" role early in the game; slow rolling Preordains and counterspells into a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and/or Gideon Jura.  While not a fully loaded control deck this build still packs 8 counterspells, 5 Planeswalkers, a couple of board sweepers and strong defensive options like Mirran Crusader or Tumble Magnet.  By leaning heavily on these control elements in the early/mid-game the deck is capable of wearing down most aggro builds over a number of turns before dropping a Crusader/Hawk and comboing out with a Sword to quickly end the game.  Typically you won't "choose" this line of play so much as it will be forced on you against most good aggro decks (Boros, Vampires, RDW, anything with Vengevines) or an opponent on the play in the mirror match.

Probably the most difficult aspect of playing any Caw Blade variant is knowing with line of play to adopt in a given match or game situation.  Further complicating the issue is that a deck like Knightwing can successfully switch back and forth between these roles on a turn by turn basis.  As a general rule if you are losing or somehow behind in tempo you are playing "control" while if you have the hammer as it were you should be adopting an "aggro" strategy.  This is however a gross oversimplification of how to pilot the deck and in reality there are a huge number of keys in a given match that decide what line of play you should be adopting at a given time.  The best advice I can offer is to practice with the deck until you're sick of seeing the cards in it; 100 matches is not an unreasonable estimate of how much practice is truly "enough".  Now that we've talked a little bit about the two most common lines of play in Knightwing's arsenal let's take a look at some tips and strategies you can use against other "tier 1" decks in the format:

Boros:  Barring a pretty terrible draw on his part you are pretty much always in the "control" role in this match-up.  Game 1 can be incredibly difficult for you on the draw because it typically forces you to tap out to play blockers and or Day of Judgment in the early game.  Tapping out to casting blockers allows him to freely zap them with Lightning bolt while tapping out to cast Day of Judgment often walks you directly into a Koth of the Hammer.  Winning the first game requires extremely tight defensive play and it's likely you'll lose almost immediately if you try to switch to aggro before you've dealt with his initial rush.  Your best cards in game 1 are probably Day of Judgment, Tumble Magnet, Mirran Crusader and Gideon Jura while alternately your blue cards not titled Preordain lose tremendous value unless you can weather his early assault; mulligan/brainstorm accordingly.  It also wouldn't hurt if your opponent has an average or sub-par draw; for all of it's raw power Boros is quite capable of producing some absolute stinker draws as the game progresses.  This is a natural byproduct of running a deck that wants to draw more creatures, more removal and more land all at the same time as the game progresses.  The good news is that games 2 and 3 are considerably easier because the sideboard has multiple options against Boros.  Typically I will board out all 8 counterspells and the 3rd copy of Jace (slow in this match) for 3x Condemn, 2x Celestial Purge (especially if they run Koth), 2x Revoke Existence (for their Swords/Bonehoard), 2x Baneslayer Angel and the 3rd copy of Day of Judgment.  Sometimes I'll bring in Sun Titan over the DoJ if I think they're "going big" in the Sideboard or might be attacking my Swords with meta cards.  Occasionally I'll actually leave 3-4 copies of Mana Leak in the deck; typically if I think my opponent is expecting me to board out all of my counter magic or I'm not afraid of his artifacts (Revoke) or a Koth (Purge).  These changes combine to turn the deck into a more powerful control builds while simultaneously focusing on containing your opponent's monsters; as any good Boros player will tell you controlling his creatures is the primary key to beating the deck.

Valakut:  The most important question in this match-up is "did you win the roll to go first?"  If your did it's very easy to adopt the "aggro" roll and go to town; in fact Knightwing was built *specifically* to crush Valakut on the play in Game 1.  Your opponent has almost no interest in seeing a Mirran Crusader hit the table and most of them are running 6 or less removal spells in the main deck not counting Valakut triggers; he can't kill everything.  To this end remember to spread the Sword love around and force him to choose between neutralizing it *or* your Crusader.  If you didn't win the roll things become a little more tricky.  You'll still want to adopt an aggressive early stance but you can *not* take the risk that he resolves a turn 3 or a turn 4 Titan.  To this effect you will have to milk maximum value out of your Spell Pierces and Mana Leaks in the early game, slowing down your Mystic/Crusader plays by a turn or even sometimes two.  Most Valakut decks are packing Green Sun Zenith in the main deck these days and Summoning Trap in the Sideboard but you're still probably better off countering his early ramp spells like Explore, Cultivate and Khalni Heart Garden.  If your opponent casts a Harrow into open blue mana do not hesitate to punish him for his arrogance by countering it; sacrificing the land is a cost of playing Harrow and he won't get it back just because the spell fizzled.  If you do have to risk countering a creature makes sure it's a Primeval Titan; you can neutralize an Avenger with a Day of Judgment but nothing puts the land your opponent fished out on resolving a Primeval back into his deck and each Valakut/Mountain puts him closer to victory.   Your best cards in game 1 are the 8 counterspells, Mirran Crusader, Day of Judgement, Tumble Magnet and both Swords (or a Mystic to fish them out).  It should be noted that this is only one of two match-ups in all of Standard where its preferable to get the Sword of Body and Mind first over Feast and Famine; milling your opponent's Mountains/Titans/Valakuts away is absolutely a legitimate strategy here.  Jace can be quite strong in this match once you've established board control but is otherwise unwelcome when you're scrambling to keep Titans and Avengers off the table; you certainly don't want to "Jace-bounce" those guys!  Gideon becomes an expensive removal spell that has excellent synergy with Tumble Magnet but is likewise not as important here as he can be in other match-ups.  As a finally note I should mention that the value of Tectonic Edge in this contest has been vastly overstated by a number of writers who clearly don't spend a lot of time playing Valakut.  Good Val players will be quite capable of playing around your Tec Edges if they realize they are coming; they will *not* win you the game against Valakut and merely serve to slow your opponent down and limit his ability to snipe off your creatures in the midgame.  While this is obviously quite useful it's not a path to victory in and of itself and given enough time the Valakut player will cast enough Titans/Avengers to finish you off with the 1-2 or "Molten Pinnacles" still hiding in his deck.  In terms of sideboard I generally only bring in the 3x Flashfreeze and a 3rd copy of Day of Judgment; as previously mentioned this deck is designed to deal with Valakut specifically so I don't really expect to board a lot of cards in and out during this match.  Typically I will board out 2 Spell Pierce and 2 Mana Leaks to make room for these cards although I've also dropped Gideon from time to time.  Every once in a while I'll board in Sun Titan as a 4th Tectonic Edge if I suspect my opponent's build is particularly vulnerable to land destruction strategies or he has difficulty playing around them in game 1; again usually at the cost of a Gideon or a 3rd mana Leak.  The only real difference between game 1 and games 2 and 3 is that in the latter you can pretty much guarantee your opponent has 3-4 Summoning Traps in his deck and you must constantly play around this card.  Try to hold back an extra cheap counter for the mid-game so that you can respond to his Trap with a Spell Pierce and completely lock his game out.  Alternately don't counter his creatures and let Day of Judgment and your Swords do all the heavy lifting.
Vampires:  In my opinion this is one of Knightwing's strongest match-ups and I'm often puzzled in general when people say Vampires has a good game against Caw Blade.  On a basic level the only cards in his main deck you really care about are Lightning Bolt, Bloodghast, Khalastria Highborn and probably 2 copies of Vampire Hexmage.  Some version of the deck run Inquisition of Kozilek which can be frustrating but as previously mentioned IoK really only hurts this deck when played in multiples.  What real makes this match-up a cakewalk however are the 4 maindeck Mirran Crusaders; assuming you can protect it from Lightning Bolt and Gatekeeper of Malikar a single Crusader can shut off your opponent's entire deck.  Obviously when fishing with the Mystic you'll want to go get Sword of Feast and Famine since it creates another protection from black threat when equipped.  Gideon is also an absolute house against this deck unless they can find the aforementioned Vampire Hexmages in game 1.  Most of the time you will spend the early game in the control role against this deck but it's much more fragile than Boros or RDW in my opinion and switching over to aggro to finish him off happens both earlier and more easily than against other aggro decks.  In terms of sideboarding I usually drop all 4 copies of Spell Pierce and a single Mana Leak for 3x Condemn and 2x Celestial Purge (great against Bloodghast and Kalastria).  The only real changes in this matchup for games 2 and 3 are that you can expect your opponent to have some form of discard (Duress, IoK) and it's likely he'll be up to 4 Hexmages; while this makes the match slightly more difficult you're still the heavy favorite in my opinion.

Red Deck Wins (RDW):  This is basically the same match-up as Boros but worse for you in every single way; your opponent is faster, has more spot removal to contain your Crusaders/Swords and likely has a full rack of 4 Koths waiting for you to tap out even once.  Losing the roll against this deck almost always means a game 1 loss unless your opponent draws poorly, which is entirely possible because RDW plays the entire game off the top of it's library.  Once again this first game *is* winnable but it requires you to play extremely tight defensively while consistently drawing blockers, mana and counterspells to protect your investments.  Playing a Gideon or two also goes a long way towards winning Game 1 in this match-up; RDW fears this card like no other and has almost no answers to an opponent constantly activating his +2 "Attack me!" ability.  I should probably also mention that this is the other deck you'll want to be fishing a Sword of Body and Mind out against in this format; a 2/2 wolf token makes an excellent chump blocker and RDW players dump their hands so quickly the discard aspect of SoF&F quickly becomes irrelevant.  As usual against aggro decks in this format games 2 and 3 get easier when you factor in the sideboard.  I will almost always bring in all 3 Condemn and 2 copies of Celestial Purge; typically at the cost of 4 Spell Pierce and my 3rd Jace who is pretty awful in the match-up most of the time.  Sometimes I'll rotate in 2 copies of Flashfreeze as well if I suspect my opponent is "going big" game 2 with Dragonlords, Koths and Inferno Titans.  Usually I'll drop Day of Judgment in that case although I've also rotated out a couple Mana Leaks at times.  Finally if I suspect my opponent is running artifact hate in his sideboard I'll occasionally drop the Sun Titan in; often in place of a near worthless Tectonic Edge (mono R doesn't have a "Manland").  While it may seem counter productive to cut down to 24 land and bring in a 6 drop, you will eventually hit 6 mana against this deck if you're controlling his early assault properly and a late game Titan to fish back a long forgotten Sword will usually end the game immediately. 

RUG:  One of Knightwing's hardest match-ups, this contest exemplifies why Caw Blade is one of the most difficult archetypes to master in Standard.  While on the surface the RUG player would appear to have the advantage in every single way you *can* actually win this match if you play it properly.  Once again the key is understanding which line of play you should be following while simultaneously sniffing out his future plays and adjusting accordingly.  If you won the roll to go first adopting the aggro strategy and simply bashing him out of the game with Cruasders/Sword of Feast and Famine is a completely reasonably option.  You will still have to be wary of his Jace's, Lightning Bolts, Mana Leaks and to some degree Inferno Titans but if you can get an unmolested sword going Turn 4 that's really not much of a problem.  On the draw however game 1 becomes a completely different animal mostly thanks to RUG's supercharger; Lotus Cobra.  The simple truth is this build's greatest flaw is an inability to deal with a resolved Lotus Cobra and one day I'm going to find room in the Sideboard for Oust or Mortapod just to kill off the little menace.  On the plus side RUG doesn't have room for Spell Peirce so your opponent can't play a Jace through your Mana Leak on turn 3 without an Explore and a 2nd "fetch" land to complete the "home run".  If you are forced to play defensively in game 1 I've found there are two major keys to pulling off the upset; first you have to find a way to win or at least not lose the Jace war and second you need to make him cast either a Precursor Golem or an Avenger before you drop your Day of Judgment.  The first point is pretty self explanatory; your opponent has more threats than you have answers so if you let him draw extra cards all day eventually he will beat you.  Keep Spell Pierce and Mana Leak up at all times and don't be afraid to drop one of your Jaces just to kill his if you have to; remember you *will* lose this game if he gets to "brainstorm" 3 or more times.  The second point is a little trickier because it can be pretty hard to resist the urge to wipe the board staring down a Cobra and an Inferno Titan.  The key to remember is that your *can* deal with the Titan by dropping a Tumble Magnet or snapping a Gideon into play after a single attack and droping 2 Loyalty to kill the Titan.  Nothing but day of Judgment is going to save you from a turn 3 Precursor Golem or a turn 5 Avenger.  In terms of sideboarding I usually take out 1x Crusader, 1x Mana Leak, 2x Spell Pierce and 1x Preordain for 3x Condemn and 2x Flashfreeze to help me contain Precursor Golem and Inferno Titan in games 2 and 3.  If it looks like my opponent is playing more than one Avenger sometimes I bring in the 3rd Day of Judgment and only 2 copies of Condemn instead.  Regardless this is still a very difficult match-up even after sideboarding and you can't get sloppy just because you have a few more removal spells at your disposal.  Focusing on controlling your opponent's Jaces and squeezing maximum value out of your removal will let you win this match-up; playing loosely will more often than not lead to an embarrassing loss against RUG.  

Caw Blade (Mirror Match):  It should probably go without saying that in the Caw Blade mirror the better pilot or the player with the superior draw often comes out on top.  There are however a few keys to this match-up that can be the difference between winning and losing in a long hard fought game.  In my opinion the three most important aspects of the mirror match are Sword control, Jace control and mana development in that order.  While it's often be falsely claimed that the first person to hit with a Sword of Feast and Famine will always win in the mirror the simple truth is this one card *will* often decided the match-up over a number of turns. On the upside you have the advantage in terms of controlling the Sword because you have more monsters to wield it (4x Crusader) but at the end of the day it really does come down to stopping you opponent's Sword while finding a way to get through with yours.  Winning the Jace war is also pretty self explanatory in my opinion; the player who sticks a Jace and can brainstorm 3 or more times will almost always win a blue on blue mirror match in my experience.  You can *not* let your opponent start going wild with an active Jace even if it means sacrificing your Jace and tapping 4 mana just to kill his.  Finally of course because the player who can stick a Sword/Jace and back it up with counter magic will almost always win this match-up it becomes incredibly important to develop your mana properly.  Casting a threat/Planeswalker with counter backup first gives you a tremendous leg up towards winning both of these power struggles and ultimately the game.  As far as sideboarding for games 2 and 3 go my decisions are affected significantly by which type of Caw Blade they are running and which cards they are likely to board in against me.  Usually I will take out both copies of Day of Judgement, 2 copies of Spell Pierce, a Mana Leak, 2 Mirran Crusaders and a Preordain for 2x Condemn, 2x Banelsayer Angel, 1x Thada Adel, Aquisitor, 1x Sun Titan and 2x Revoke Existence.  Sometimes I keep the Crusaders and skip the Sun Titan/Thada Adel if I think my opponent has easy access to a lot of removal (Esper Caw Blade for example).  This sideboard strategy allows me to play for longer ground out games which are much easier to win because ultimately I can control my opponent's Swords forever with Revoke existence and he can not do likewise because of my Sun Titan.  Even if he does manage to deal with the swords I can always just go over top of his defenses with Baneslayer Angel and Gideon; you can only chump block with a Bird so many times before you eventually run out.  Once again much like RUG even after sideboarding this is still a very hard match-up that rewards tight, conservative play and punishes hastiness and mistakes harshly.      

The Rest:  Unfortunately as this article is already running rather long I don't have the time to discuss Knightwing's match-ups against the myriad of tier 1.5 decks in the format.  All I can really tell is you is that I've struggled against K Gobs and Fauna Shaman/Vengevine decks on "nuts" draws.  Otherwise the deck has tested out well vs White Weenie/Artifact swarm decks, Elves, Tezzeret (both Infect and Non-Infect), Brian Kiblers U/B Crusader Infect deck, Eldrazi ramp (W/G and mono G), mono blue proliferate decks and virtually every type of hardcore control deck under the sun (U/B, U/R Grixis, U/W Tapout, etc).  As always the best advice I can offer in general when playing this deck is to practice with it a lot before you go to a tournament and always play according to your optimal line; this doesn't change just because your facing a Tier 1.5 deck.

Possible Improvements?:  As previously mentioned Caw Blade is one of the most versatile decks in the format; U/W has access to an absolutely phenomenal number of great cards both for the main deck and the sideboard.  The deck is pretty modular and if you don't like how a given card is performing feel free to change it with something else; Divine Offering instead of revoke, Condemn in the maindeck and Day of Judgment in the sideboard.  Really the options are somewhat limitless.  I should also mention that many players run 4 and 3 copies of Jace and Gideon respectively at the cost of a 4th Spell Pierce and Mana Leak.  I tried this version for a number of matches but found I was constantly flooded with 'extra" Planeswalkers I couldn't or didn't want to cast and short on answers for what my opponent was doing.  As always "mileage may vary".  Finally many people I've shared the deck with question the "techy" 1 of creatures in the sideboard (Sun Titan, Thada Adel) and feel they should be more copies of Condemn/Flashfreeze but I never got around to trying it myself.
Well folks once again I've worn my fingers down to bloody stubs writing about the game I love.  I hope you've found this primer useful and apologize profusely for it's somewhat mind-numbing length.  It takes a lot more effort to describe a deck as complicated as Knightwing and I didn't want to leave anything out if at all possible.  I'm also sorry that it's coming out so close to regional qualifiers so most of you won't read this until Monday; as mentioned above a death in my little family pretty much drained my will to write for a few days.  Until next time folks remember that double strike means you get to trigger the Sword twice and always keep it weird!