Friday, May 20, 2011

Standard Deviations #14 - In a Strange Land: Starting Points in New Phyrexia

Hello ladies and gentlemen; I hope you've all had a "Magical" week and welcome back to another edition of the Cardboard Witch.  Judging by the number of emails and direct messages I've been receiving asking for advice, decklists and format projections the post NPH evironment has everyone excited about Standard again.  This is a good thing if, like myself you're an unrepentant Magic junkie with an extensive "Type 2" collection; pre-NPH Standard had firmly settled into a one horse race and a number of my friends simply gave up on beating Caw Blade about a month or so ago.  It's hard to feed the monkey when you have nobody to play with so I for one welcome any changes to Standard that get more people back to the table and playing while simultaneously reducing the number of people begging for Jace/Mystic bans on Twitter.

Unfortunately due to time constraints and my complete inability to open the cards I need for decks in packs of New Phyrexia I only recently started testing this past weekend; I don't think I need to tell anyone that 5-6 days is hardly enough time to form solid opinions on an entire format.  I have however had a chance to play about 150 pre-SB games in that time while testing out 4 different decks I've been tinkering with since NPH was spoiled early.  While I'm not exactly fond of publishing decklists without proper testing I've been assured by a number of readers that they'd rather see "where I'm at right now" than wait around for final versions of these decks; this is probably because I write slowly and like to test a deck at least 200 times before I bother to share on the blog.  For those of you used to my usual level of thorough testing please accept my apologies in advance and I promise that I won't make a habit of this; there's nothing I hate worse than running around to find the cards to build a deck only to have the designer tell me 3 days later that he *now* sees that the original build was completely wrong and I have to run out for 25 new cards to "fix" it.  In light of this I ask that you understand that these lists merely represent a starting point in the post NPH environment; quite literally these are the first 4 decks I built that survived the initial goldfish/testing process and I'm sharing them now merely by request.  At this point I have a pretty good idea of where the sideboards for these decks are headed but until I'm confident that the main builds for these decks are finished I'm not too worried about it.  Additionally developing a proper 15 card sideboard is much easier once you know what cards *other* people like in the format and thanks to Wizards I won't have to make any of these decks tournament ready until June 1st; might as well take the time to measure twice right?  And now, the decks:

Cult of the Furnace God - RDW:

Creatures -16:

4x Furnace Scamp
4x Goblin Guide
4x Ember Hauler
4x Kiln Fiend

Spells - 21:

4x Lightning Bolt
3x Burst Lightning
4x Searing Blaze
4x Shrine of Burning Rage
3x Staggershock
3x Koth of the Hammer

Lands - 23:

4x Teetering Peaks
4x Arid Mesa
15x Mountain

First of all I should probably mention that this isn't exactly my deck.  A friend of mine (Jared Devlin-Scherer) who's a former CCG designer and possibly the smartest man I know basically handed me the shell of this build to wake me out of my funk and get me interested in the post-NPH environment.  All I did was add Kiln Fiends, Arid Mesas and mess around with the card numbers slightly before rolling over almost everything I tested it against.  Out of all of the decks in this article Jared's RDW design is the one I've played the most and I'm pretty comfortable declaring it a finished product; mad props to my homeboy for building such a wicked damage engine.

In terms of deck-style this build is a fairly classic example of RDW; although in this case the deck is more orientated towards "burn" and "dome" (throwing damage at the play directly) effects than previous versions in this arc.  In fact when Jared first sent me the deck he noted that essentially every card in the deck was a "domeable burn spell" and thus the deck was not dependent on keeping creatures in play.  This is a VERY smart idea in a format dominated by Stoneforge Mystic, Deciever Exarch, Lotus Cobra and a million other powerful effects that happen to have "legs"; your opponents WILL be packing creature removal spells maindeck in the post NPH environment simply to deal with these cards.  Naturally of course I screwed the theory up almost immediately by adding Kiln Fiend; who is not really a burn spell and without haste is pretty vulnerable to removal spells.  In testing however the payoff of potential turn 3-4 victories that don't involve Koth or a Shrine of Burning Rage was too good to pass up.

Cards of Note:  Shrine of Burning Rage is probably the best card in this entire deck and the vast majority of games will end with you "doming" your opponent out with a 6-9 point Shrine.  The entire deck has been built to interact with this card including keeping a lower curve to make it that much easier to load up the Shrine quickly and efficiently.  Simply put you pretty much ALWAYS want to play the Shrine turn 2 if possible unless you're on the draw, you're staring down a Stoneforge Mystic and you know for sure she's about to put a Batterskull in play.  In this scenario it's acceptable to Searing Blaze the Mystic and wait for turn 3 to play your Shrine but it will be a very rare situation where dropping the Shrine as quickly as possible is not the correct play.  Trust me, if you don't believe in the power of this card now all it will take is 1-2 games with or against a solid Mono Red build running them to change your mind; "Shrine of Melting Your Face Off" is absolutely nuts.  Furnace Scamp is the other NPH inclusion in the maindeck and while I initially balked at playing it this little guy is actually very good in the current format.  He'd obviously be much better if he had haste but the vast majority of the time you'll cast one early and easily connect for 4 damage.  For example one of my favorite openings on the play goes something like: turn 1 Furnace Scamp, Turn 2 Goblin Guide, Teetering Peeks on the Guide, swing for 5 and sacrifice the Scamp for another 3.  Alternately getting 4 damage through while casting a turn 2 Shrine really isn't a bad deal either.  For those who are going to ask me anyways; yes you pretty much always sacrifice him if he connects because he's probably not going to connect later in the game.  Additionally Jared assures me that you board him out for more burn/creature control in game 2 on the draw although I can't confirm this as I haven't played any sideboarded games with the deck; the theory is sound however.  Staggershock was chosen over Volt Charge because it still puts 2 counters on the Shrine (Rebound cards are actually recast on upkeep) and adds up to one more damage overall.  Oddly enough Koth does not shine in this build like I expected him to; most of the time you'd rather cast a bunch of cheap R spells to load up your Shrines and get more damage through than stop and cast a 4CC planeswalker.  He does however help you win bogged down games against heavy removal and as always gives top tier control decks like Caw Blade fits so I wouldn't advise cutting him.

Grixis Twin - U/B/R Combo: 

Creatures - 10:

4x Spellskite
4x Deciever Exarch
2x Grave Titan

Spells - 24:

4x Preordain
4x Inquisition of Kozilek
3x Lightning Bolt
3x Go For the Throat
3x Mana Leak
4x Splinter Twin
3x Jace the Mindsculptor

Lands - 26:

4x Creeping Tar Pit
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Blackcleave Cliffs
4x Scalding Tarn
4x Mountain
4x Island
2x Dragonskull Summit

By now everyone has at least heard of this deck after it's strong showing at the Star City Games Orlando Open and there are likely a number of variants running around your local environment as we speak.  This is the version of deck I built after reading a number of articles about the decktype; most notably those provided by (I'd link but they're having tech difficulties atm - ed.).  Unfortunately I've only had one evening to test the deck because a number of the cards I used to build my initial copy were borrowed and the lender needed them back after a single testing session.  I can however say that the deck tested out pretty well during the evening; going something like 8-2 in pre SB matches vs Caw Blade, a post NPH Valakut and a BUG design I felt still needed some work.  As a word of warning I should mention that this deck is not particularly easy to play well; like most combo decks there's a very fine line between racing towards your combo and making sure your opponent can't stop you from winning.  This is why the deck includes 2 Grave Titans; if the game grinds out too long and your opponent can effectively stop the Exarch/Twin combo then you simply cast the giant zombie maker and go to town.

Cards of Note:  While obviously the Splinter Twin/Deceiver Exarch combo forms the backbone of the deck in my brief play experience the most important card in this build was actually the Spellskite.  Putting this card into play on turn 2 essentially amounts to adding a free counterspell to your hand for the purposes of comboing off with the Exarch/Twin.  In fact I will go so far as to say that dealing with Spellskite is going to be one of the *major* themes of the post-NPH environment; every time I put this card into play I find a new way to use it to wreck my opponents.  Inquisition of Kozilek was chosen as the maindeck discard spell over Duress and Despise simply because it's better at finding removal spells will still letting me rip Stoneforge Mystics and Sword of Feast and Famine out of my opponents hands.  Once again part of playing a creature based combo deck is protecting said combo and simply put Inquisition does that better than the other options available.  The removal package of 3x Go For the Throat and 3x Lightning Bolt was chosen to simultaneously attack enemy Spellskites (can't redirect a G4tT) while still protecting against problem artifact cards like Precursor Golem.  During testing the idea of replacing the Bolts with Dismember came up multiple times and I'm not entirely sure that's wrong.  The only issue I have is that without playing 4 life Dismember is more expensive than Bolt and it doesn't make as efficient use of our mana; any deck based around a RR2 Aura is going to play a significant # of red sources and not having anything to do with them but Splinter Twin seems sketchy.  Finally as mentioned I chose Grave Titan as the alternate path to victory in this build over Consecrated Sphinx.  Once again this choice comes down to a question of decktype; namely if you're going to lose with this build it's probably going to be because your opponent has a tremendous amount of removal.  Against this type of opponent Grave Titan shines by leaving behind 2 Zombie tokens even if he's killed and being immune to Doom Blade (which is still a viable card in STD afaict).  Remember, your opponent is likely going to be holding back instant speed removal at all times against this deck simply because it's so easy for you to combo out in one cycle; this in turn means that it's *highly* unlikely your Consecrated Sphinx will survive into upkeep against a deck that's good enough to have not already lost to your combo.  Finally I should probably mention that a number of people I've shared this deck with have asked for another card draw spell of some kind; personally I've had almost zero issues with 4x Preordain and 3x Jace but if it becomes an issue I'd probably choose an Into the Roil/Twitch type effect before I went with one of the many "pay 2-3 mana draw 2 cards at sorcery speed" options in the format.

"Skullblade" - U/W Fish:

Creatures - 12:

4x Stoneforge Mystic
4x Spellskite
4x Mirran Crusader

Spells - 21:

4x Preordain
3x Condemn
3x Spell Pierce
3x Mana Leak
2x Divine Offering
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Sword of War and Peace
2x Tumble Magnet
3x Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1x Batterskull

Lands - 25:

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

In my opinion this is the list that will likely cause the most controversy; people are *very* attached to their Squadron Hawks and any Caw Blade list without them stands a pretty good chance of being rejected out of hand.  After testing however I'm prepared to take that chance because simply put Spellskite is a *way* better card than Squadron Hawk and the deck's mana curve doesn't work well with 12 cards in the 2CC slot; I know, I tried it with both initially.  The Sqwak doesn't provide free counterspells to protect your Mystics/Batterskull, it isn't pro-black and can't end the game in a single shot like the Crusader so it doesn't make the final cut.  Feel free to call me insane in the comments but I believe the end of the Squadron Hawk era is now firmly upon us.   While I must admit to only having about 25 games in with this deck at this point I'm pretty confident that it's very strong; so far my only losses have come to decks involving Shrine of Burning Rage (more on this later).

Cards of Note:  By now people are going to be tired of hearing about how amazing Batterskull is in Cawblade; get used to it because so far in testing this card has actually somehow been *better* than I anticipated.  Frankly this card and this card alone has officially turned Stoneforge Mystic into a second Lotus Cobra in the format; namely you absolutely must kill her before your opponent starts a turn to remove her summoning sickness.  If you do not you're probably going to lose to Batterskull and I can assure you it won't be pretty.  The sad truth is most of the time in testing my opponents *have" snap killed the Mystic and still ultimately lost to a turn 5 hardcast Batterskull; I will not be surprised if by the time I take this deck out to sanctioned tournaments I've added a 2nd copy because this card is just that good on the table.  As previously mentioned above Spellskite is an absolutely godsend to any deck trying to protect a creature based strategy and this is no different; whether it's keeping your Mystic alive long enough to force in a Batterskull or preventing your opponent from touching a Mirran Crusader who's about to one shot him with a Sword of War and Peace this card shines in Caw Blade.  As I wrote on Twitter last night; any card that can make me cast it turn 2 over a Stoneforge Mystic in hand has got a lot going for it.  Obviously the "1 shot you lose" combo with SoW&P is the primary reason for including the Crusader but frankly he's just as effective with a Sword of Feast and Famine in his hands.  Additionally with the rise of Spellskite I envision Go For the Throat replacing Lightning Bolt as the removal spell of choice and Cruasder is clearly very effective against black removal spells in that situation.  Condemn was chosen over Oust because it's instant, more effective against RDW aggro strategies and because unless your opponent actually attacks with his Spellskite too it can not be redirected.  Finally I caved and added two copies of Divine Offering to the maindeck to reflect an environment I expect to see dominated by Spellskites, Batterskulls, Tezzeret decks and Shrine of Burning Rages.  This wasn't something I did willingly but so far in testing it's bearing out as an excellent choice; I have not played a single deck yet that did not maindeck at least one artifact.          

"Grave Consequences" - U/B Control:

Creatures - 7:

2x Gatekeeper of Malakir
2x Phyrexian Metamorph
3x Grave Titan

Spells - 27:

4x Preordain
4x Despise
2x Spell Pierce
2x Inquisition of Kozilek
4x Mana Leak
3x Go for the Throat
2x Into the Roil
3x Dismember
4x Jace the Mind Sculptor

Lands - 26:

4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacombs
4x Creeping Tar Pit
3x Tectonic Edge
6x Swamp
5x Island

As regular readers of this blog know I have a huge soft spot for U/B Control decks built around Grave Titan and in fact it's actually my favorite deck in Standard.  The only reason I stopped playing it this winter was the rise of Caw Blade; a deck that effectively ended U/B Control's reign at the top of standard by being both faster & more durable than U/B could ever hope to be.  This was primarily caused by the U/B Control player's inability to deal simultaneously with quick aggressive creatures carrying Swords (Mystic, Hawk) and ground out strategies involving Planeswalkers (Jace, Gideon).  Inquisition of Kozilek helped against the Mystics and Duress was effective against Jace but it was virtually impossible to construct a deck capable of dealing with both aspects of the U/W strategy.  Enter Despise.  By combining Ostracize with the part of Duress I cared about in this format Wizards managed to give me back my favorite deck in one fell swoop.  Once again I should mention that this is not a particularly easy deck to play but typically most control strategies aren't and the power level of the cards in this build make it slightly more forgiving than traditional control decks.

Cards of Note:  As previously mentioned the most important NPH card in this build is Despise; this format is pretty much all about creatures and Planeswalkers with the exception of Batterskull and having a single card that attacks both is very powerful right now.  I would also be remiss if I didn't give Dismember it's fair share; while it's not my favorite removal spell in the format it combines well with Go For the Throat to help answer most creature packages in the format effectively.  Remember just because you *can* lose 4 life to play it for 1 doesn't mean you have to and the utility this spell provides because of that is pretty much off the charts.  The inclusion of Into the Roil was a bit of a compromise; during testing I felt the deck needed more ways to handle a Batterskull while simultaneously wanting another card draw effect; so far the results have been mixed but I haven't found anything better for that slot either.  Finally I'd like to give some love to my favorite card in the deck; Phyrexian Metamorph.  The fact that people aren't including this card in more decks is completely insane; a 3 mana clone in a format with 8 million come into play effects is ridiculously powerful and I firmly expect this card to start popping up in decks all over the place very soon.  In this build his primary function is to copy enemy Batterskulls and/or Titans (your own or his) but the truth is this card is as good as the best creature/artifact your opponent plays during the first 4-5 turns.  I've copied Vengevines, Phyrexian Crusaders, a Wurmcoil Engine and even a couple Spellskites when I desperately needed a colorless blocker.  Probably my favorite Metamorph play so far involved my opponent dropping a turn 4 Primeval Titan on the draw and fishing out 2 copies of Valakut only to have me play a land, Metamorph to copy the Titan and fish out 2 Tectonic Edges before killing *his* Prime Titan with a Go For the Throat.  I won that game.

Well folks there you have it; a completely unstructured look at all the decks in my Standard Lab as they stand at this exact moment.  As previously mentioned I simply haven't had enough time to test everything in this format so these lists can and in fact probably *will* change.  Hopefully however these decks aren't too far from where they will end up and can at least provide a starting point for people out their working on their own ideas.  As for sideboarding; ya'll are on your own suckas! (*nina dodges*)  Jared mentioned that both Dismember and Act of Aggression were necessary in the RDW but other than that I'm still mulling too many options over in my mind to put definitive 15 card 'boards together.  As always thanks for reading and remember folks just because @Smi77y goes nuts over a card doesn't *automatically* mean it's bad!

(PS: Inside joke, if you don't know who Smitty is you need to get on Twitter and/or start downloading The Eh Team Podcasts at or , no really.)

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