Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Standard Deviations #15 - Skullkickers Part I: The Core

"We have met the enemy and he is...Batterskull" - Walt Kelly, "Pogo" (sorta)

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of The Cardboard Witch.  Recently on this blog I published an article about starting points in the post-NPH Standard environment and I included lists for the 4 decks I'd built so far in the format.  While noting that these were merely starting points rather than finished tournament decks I promised to come back to the subject of Standard when I'd had more time to test the format a little bit.  At the time I genuinely believed that the release of New Phrexia would open the format to a wide variety of decks after months of Caw Blade dominance with a few RUG, Valakut and RDW victories sprinkled in between.  Well folks I'm back, and with another 250 or so games under my belt I'm starting to believe that I was terribly, terribly wrong about the effect NPH will have on Standard.  Nobody is going to want to hear this and frankly I don't want to say it but if you've been putting in the time testing with actual decks you already know what I'm going to say is true.  Cawblade, or rather U/W decks built around Stoneforge Mystic have lost absolutely no ground with the release of the new set and have in fact edged from "very very good" to "a complete format destroying menace" with the release of exactly two cards: Batterskull and Spellskite. 

Now before this degenerates into some sort of epic, meta-game based argument in the comments please understand that I am fully aware that some versions of Splinter Twin Combo and Red Deck Wins have excellent match-ups against traditional Caw Blade decks.  I am prepared to concede this point before we start simply because I do not believe "traditional" Caw Blade decks are the right answer anymore.  With all respect to Edgar Flores who is a much better player than I am, I do believe that Standard has passed cards like Squadron Hawk and Tumble Magnet by.  Additionally format shifting cards like Deceiver Exarch (Splinter Twin), Dismember and Shrine of Burning Rage require new answers even for a deck as powerful as U/W Mystic; without them it's only natural to lose to more powerful versions of combo and RDW that *are* aggressively attacking "Cawblade" with all these new toys.  With this in mind lets take a look at what I feel is the core of "the new Cawblade" build and why I think you really can't call it Cawblade anymore at all:

The Creatures:

4x Spellskite
4x Stoneforge Mystic
3x Mirran Crusader

Personally I feel at this point the power of Stoneforge Mystic is pretty much self evident; if you're reading an article about Standard and you don't already know how amazing this little lady is please allow me to welcome you back to Magic after living in a cave for the past year!  Jokes aside Stoneforge Mystic was a 4 of in this deck before the release of Batterskull and there's no reason to cut that number now that she can fish out even more game warping equipment cards.  I also don't feel that Spellskite warrants my debate at this point either; if the name of the game is "put out a dangerous equipment and protect the crap out of it" it's pretty hard to turn down what amounts to at least a free counterspell and potentially a whole lot more than that.  In addition to protecting your key cards from harm the Skite also makes an incredible blocker at 0/4 but unlike most "walls" can still attack because it doesn't have defender.  While you may be tempted to ask "why would I attack with a 0/4 creature" the fact that you *can* use it to apply a sword hit, carry a Batterskull or even nullify an enemy Condemn helps make Spellskite a relevant card well into the late game.  Finally of course it directly attacks both Splinter Twin and Shrine of Burning Rage; two cards that go a long way towards destroying traditional Cawblade in this metagame.  Yes your opponent can simply kill the Spellskite before comboing off or "doming" you with his Shrines but the larger point is that he now *has* to do so before he has any chance of winning the game.  This type of inherent resistance to the format at large is a hallmark of traditional Cawblade and is one of the reasons I feel Spellskite slips so easily into the design.   I've heard people complain that the card doesn't "do enough" on the table to warrant main-deck inclusion but after exactly one game of testing with it I discarded the idea as "complete hogwash" and I'm pretty sure you will too once you see 'Skite in action.  Finally this brings us to our front line beater and chief wearer of Swords; Mirran Crusader.  While I have often been criticized for my overwhelming love affair with this "win more" badboy ( I have been playing it since MBS was released ) I think the format has finally evolved to the point where Crusader isn't an option so much as the *best* option for addressing the metagame.  As we've previously discussed the Crusader and Sword of War and Peace were meant for each other; setting your opponent up for a one shot kill with a 4/4 double striking monstrosity that's protected from 4 out of the 5 colors in Magic is the definition of fun times.  What may be more important however in the face of the post NPH environment is the Crusader's natural protection from Black; more specifically rapidly rising format staples Go for the Throat and Dismember.  Remember folks one of the ways your opponent will try to get around Spellskite is to cast spells that simply can't be redirected at the 'Skite and for this very reason Go for the Throat is quickly replacing Lightning bolt as the cheap removal spell of choice in the format.  Dismember of course is also rising in popularity; primarily because the Phyrexian Mana mechanic means you can splash it in *anything*.  Regardless of which removal spells your opponent is using there's a pretty good chance that between Spellskite and the Mirran Crusader he'll struggle to actually target your "gear-wearing" threats.  Probably the most important important reason to include Mirran Crusader however is his ability to contain both enemy Spellskites and Batterskulls; with doublestrike and protection from black this 2/2 critter can enter combat profitably with *both* of the NPH cards I feel most drastically affect the format.  Personally I play 4 copies of this card in my version of the deck but in terms of core numbers you'll need 3; running the "full rack" may be unnecessary because you don't *need* more than 1 in play and you'll rarely stop to cast it on turn 3 if you have the Stoneforge Mystic plan online anyways.

The Card Draw:
4x Preordain
3x Jace the Mind Sculptor

Once again I feel that both of these card choices are pretty obvious; Preordain is simply the most cost efficient card draw/sift card in the format while Jace the Mind Sculptor is arguably the best card in the format period (though I'll take Mystic personally).  If you're new to Standard and having trouble understanding why everyone is so excited about these two cards I recommend reading Nick Spagnolo's excellent article Casting Blue Spells on  While it's slightly dated at this point the vast majority of what he talks about is still relevant today and will remain so as long as these two cards stay in the Standard rotation (so Octoberish).  Naturally of course the Stoneforge Mystic is a form of card draw but we already covered her in the creatures section.  So with that out of the way I'd like to focus on the question I get asked most often when showing people these lists; "If Jace is the best card in the format, why are you only running 3?"  As it turns out this is a pretty complicated question because there is more than one answer and at this point I have been in so many arguments on the subject that I am honestly tempted to lie and say "I just don't own a fourth copy" simply to avoid the discussion.  The simple truth is that even though he doesn't say so on his text Jace is for all intents and purposes a Legendary card; you can't have 2 in play at the same time even if the 2nd copy is on your opponent's side of the table.  In fact Jace is even more restrictive than most traditional Legendary cards because *both* versions of Jace count as the same card under the Planeswalker rules and thus a Jace Beleren can destroy a Jace the Mind Sculptor and vice versa.  Traditionally I have shied away from playing 4 copies of any card restricted in this manner with the following exceptions:
  • You absolutely have to draw and play it as soon as possible (example, Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero).  As far as Jace is concerned this would mean turn 4 unless you were running some sort of mana acceleration (Lotus Cobra, Everflowing Chalice).  Now setting aside the fact that I have an opening 7 card hand and at least 3 draw steps before turn 4 happens; does this deck really want to play Jace on turn 4?  Assuming you're operating on the optimal line of play the answer to this question is no; typically you'll want to go T2 Spellskite, T3 Stoneforge Mystic with Spell Pierce Mana up and then pass Turn 4 entirely to leave up a Mana Leak and still force the Batterskull into play with the Mystic.  In fact in this scenario you are unlikely to cast Jace on even turn 5 because you'll want leave mana up for Leak, Divine Offering or even to bounce the Skull back to your hand and replay it with Stoneforge Mystic.  Naturally there are situations where you'll want to cast Jace on turn 4; say for example you go turn 2 Spellskite/Mystic, Turn 3 Crusader, Turn 4 Jace, Turn 5 Sword & attach to the Crusader.  This is however a considerably weaker line of play than previous one so if given the choice you'll probably be holding Jace until turns 5 or more likely 6 so you can protect him with Mana Leak.  Combined with the fact that this deck runs 4 copies of Preordain it's a pretty rare game where I want to cast a Jace and simply can't find one even running only 3.  
  • Your deck doesn't work without the card in play (example, Kokusho, the Evening Star or Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas).  At it's heart Skullblade is primarily a creature based damage deck; you will win the vast majority of your games by beating your opponent down with a Batterskull, a sword-wielding Crusader or animating Celestial Colonnade over and over again.  In the context of this game plan Jace's primary function is to maintain and magnify the advantage you've gained from casting/using these creatures.  In other words Jace doesn't win you the game so much as give you the necessary "gas" to choke your opponent out once you've already gained advantage; assuming a quality draw you can and will win games in which your Jace has been destroyed or you never cast a Jace at all.  It's not optimal of course but compared to how badly you *need* to see Stoneforge Mystic in this build for example it's certainly not "terminal" to play a game w/o Jace.  In fact against most super fast aggro decks I actually board out the 3rd Jace and cut down to 2, following the theory that I will only want to play Jace once I've broken his initial attack and have complete board control.  
  • You know for a fact that your opponents are playing the same Legend and you need it to destroy their copies before the game gets out of hand (example, Umezawa's Jitte).  This is certainly the most legitimate reason to consider running 4 copies of Jace in Skullblade; after all Jace is the backbone of virtually every tier 1 deck in Standard and at any large tournament you will face numerous opponents who're rocking this card.  In fact at certain points in the metagame top players were running 4 Mind Sculptors and 1-3 Jace Beleren just to ensure they maintained "Jace control".  Additionally it's certainly fair to say that I don't want my opponent "brainstorming" with Jace turn after turn and one of the ways to stop that would be to cast my own copy of Jace to destroy my opponent's.  Unfortunately in testing I have found that this is something of a "loser's play"; I'm basically tapping 4 mana on my turn and discarding one of the best cards in my deck from my hand to stop my opponent from activating Jace a second time.  Virtually no matter how you add up that scenario my opponent has gained card advantage and essentially "timewalked" me by preventing me from furthering my own strategy at the same time.  You probably don't need me to tell you that making these kind of plays will occasionally be necessary but you certainly don't want to giving away cards or turns very often if you intend to win tournaments in Magic.  Typically facing down an opponent's Jace I will try to play in such a way as to either destroy the enemy Jace with my creatures (Colonnade and or Sword of War and Peace are great at this) or to end the game quickly enough that my opponent can only "brainstorm" once or twice before Jace is forced into a defensive role (Mirran Crusader I'm looking at you).  If I can destroy the Jace first the advantage gained by casting my own copy will be tremendous while alternately forcing my opponent to address my board position has lead to far more wins for me than trading my Jace/turn for his.  I guess that's a fancy way of saying that during testing I haven't needed to cast my Jace to control my opponent's Jace very often and the vast majority of the time I have *had* to do so I ended up losing the game anyways.     
Finally the last reason I don't run 4 copies of Jace the Mindsculptor in this deck has absolutely nothing to do with his pseudo-legendary status and everything to do with the speed of aggro decks in the format.  While I personally feel there are far too many board-sweepers available in Standard to make Aggro a viable strategy the simple truth is that people at your FNM *will* be playing these decks and they are *much* faster than they were a couple of months ago.  Consider the following potential lines of play for a moment:
  • Elves: T1 Llanowar Elf, T2 Elvish Archdruid, T3 Copperhorn Scout, Fauna Shaman, Ezuri, Renegade Leader, Arbor Elf, T4 Attack for 57 points of Trample damage.
  • RDW: T1 Goblin Guide, attack for 2 (18), T2 Kiln Fiend, attack for 2 (16), T3 Searing Blaze your Stoneforge Mystic (13), Assault Strobe the Kiln Fiend and attack for 16 damage (-2).
  • Tempered Steel: T1 Memnite, Signal Pest, T2 Porcelain Legionnaire, attack for 2 (18), T3 Tempered Steel, attack for 13 (5), T4 Dispatch your blocker and attack for 13 (-8), potentially casting more creatures after combat if you are still alive.
  • Boros: T1 Steppe Lynx, T2 Crackland, attack for 4 (16), Plated Geopede, T3 Crackland, Searing Blaze your blocker (13), Goblin Guide, attack for 11 (2), T4 Burst, Bolt, Koth you or play a land and attack.
  • Kuldotha Goblins: T1 Memnite, Kuldotha Rebirth for 3x 1/1 Goblin Tokens, T2 Goblin Bushwhacker with kicker, attack for 8 (12), T3 Goblin Chieftan attack for 10 (2), T4 Burst, Bolt you or just attack again.
  • Mono Green Poison: T1 Glistener Elf, T2 Attack for 1 poison, Ichorclaw Myr, T3 Play a land to activate landfall, attack, Groundswell for +4 power, Vines of Vastwood w/ kicker for +4 power, hit for 10 poison (11 total).
While I'm quite certain that this is hardly an exhaustive list the simple fact that these decks are out there in the environment I play in means I'm looking for more early game answers and less worried about mid/late game cards; including Jace the Mind Sculptor.  If all of that fails to convince you that there's a reason why I only run 3 copies of "big Jace" feel free to disregard me as crazy/broke and just add another copy of JtMS to your build.

The Disruption:

3x Spell Pierce
2x Condemn
3x Mana Leak
2x Divine Offering

While hardly complete this is the basic "disruption" package I feel no U/W Mystic deck should be without in the current format.  Ideally you'll want to use the 6 cheap counters to protect your threats, the 2 Condemns to keep aggro decks from outracing you and the 2 Divine Offerings to destroy enemy Batterskulls/Swords.  Unfortunately games of Magic often go awry so each of these cards has been chosen to provide as much versatility as possible while still being extremely cheap to cast; thereby maximizing their usefulness.  A good example of this is Divine Offering which is pretty much Batterskull meta at this point and likely wouldn't be a main-deckable option if the Skull didn't exist.  That doesn't mean you can't use it to destroy other artifacts however and I've won games through the timely destruction of Swords, Spellskites, Everflowing Chalices/Sphere of the Suns, Porcelain Legionnares, Inkmoth Nexi and most importantly Shrine of Burning Rage; a card that can absolutely bury this decktype if you don't deal with it before he kills your Spellskite.  I would also remiss if I failed to point out that in many situations Spellskite and Jace can be quite "disruptive" and aren't listed here primarily because we've already discussed them.

The Gear:

2x Batterskull
1x Sword of War and Peace

I'm telling you folks it's rapidly becoming a Skull eat Skull world out here in Standard.  Batterskull is easily the most dangerous card in the entire deck and frankly in my mind the entire format.  The problem is your opponents know this and they are going to come after it as a result.  Duress, Divine Offering, Crush and Nature's Claim are suddenly seeing main-deck play all over the place and you can't win the game with a Batterskull if your opponent bins it before you get to use it.  Personally I run 3 copies of this card in my current build and I often suspect that it may require a 4th someday as the meta shifts even further towards controlling my Skulls.  For now though I consider the bare minimum acceptable number of Batterskulls in a U/W Mystic deck to be 2.  Sword of War and Peace on the other hand warrants main-deck inclusion primarily because of it's versatility in the design and it's meta applications in the current format.  Giving a Mirran Crusader a SoW&P generally means a near unblockable, untouchable Crusader which is a significant problem for most opponents.  Additionally the protection from red and white abilities are pretty good on any creature in a format dominated by Caw Blade or when trying to match up with a traditional enemy like RDW.  The life gain ability also plays well in a deck already rocking Batterskulls and the extra damage ability allows you to periodically one-shot your opponent with a Mirran Crusader.  It can also be redirected to enemy Planeswalkers as previously mentioned and this is especially important for controlling Jaces in the mirror match.

The Lands:

4x Celestial Colonnade
4x Glacial Fortress
4x Seachrome Coast
4x Island
4x Plains
1x Scalding Tarn/Misty Rainforest
1x Marsh Flats/Arid Messa

I should mention that this particular land configuration is a matter of personal preference based on rigorous play-testing; I have seen decks running only 20 colored sources of mana to allow for up to 6 colorless land (Edgar Flores).  Personally however I have never had much luck dropping under 22 myself; this may in part be due to my tendency to run Mirran Crusaders and at least some sideboard Day of Judgments whereas many versions of the deck run no double mana spells except 4 copies of Jace the Mind Sculptor.  The two "cracklands" were included primarily as a way to shuffle away unwanted cards after activating a Jace and aren't particularly necessary if you're still running Squadron Hawks.  In a deck without them however they are vital and should not be removed at any cost.

The Sideboard:

2x Celestial Purge
1x Revoke Existence/Divine Offering
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Day of Judgment

Apart from the Stoneforge Mystic/Batterskull combo one of the best reasons to play a U/W Mystic deck in standard is the sheer versatility and power of it's sideboard.  Simply put this deck can effectively meta any strategy in the format if you include the right sideboard cards.  Unfortunately the sheer diversity of options available means that no matter how well you tune a U/W sideboard you're probably leaving out several cards you wish you didn't have to.  This can lead to a massive variety of final sideboards (we'll discuss this more in Part II) but there are a few cards I generally won't leave home without regardless of the metagame I expect to see.  First and foremost amongst these cards are 2 copies of Celestial Purge which I tend to run as a catch all answer to problems like Koth of the Hammer, Tezzeret Agent of Bolas, Splinter Twin, Grave/Inferno Titan, Pyromancer's Ascension, Bloodghast or Kalastria Highborn.  Most of these cards are particularly strong against U/W Mystic decks and I definitely enjoy knowing I have additional answers for them in games 2 and 3.  The Revoke Existence/Divine Offering slot is primarily a concession to the heavy artifact based nature of the current Standard format.  There are *going* to be match-ups where 2 Divine Offerings won't be good enough and at a bare minimum you need a 3rd answer for artifacts in your sideboard these days.  Personally I typically run 4 answers total with 2 copies of Revoke Existence in the sideboard to address enchantments, Wurmcoil Engines and Molten-Tail Masticores while still helping me win Batterskull wars. If you prefer the instant aspect of the card however 2 or even 1 additional Divine Offering is acceptable.  I run Sword of Feast and Famine in the sideboard because I don't run it in the maindeck and there are still a number of matches where you're going to want to have access to this card (Vampires, U/B Control, Eldrazi/Valakut Ramp, Grixis Twin).  If you've left SoF&F in your maindeck already there's no need to include a second copy here in the sideboard.  Finally whether it's in the sideboard or the main deck you're going to want to have some form of board-sweeper in your build and right now it's hard to beat Day of Judgment in terms of value for mana invested.  Personally I think it's suicide to attempt to play this deck without at least 2 copies of DoJ somewhere in the 75 and I myself typically run 2 maindeck copies and a 3rd in the sideboard.  If you aren't running any in the main this should probably be at least 2 copies here in the sideboard however.

When you throw all of these core elements together you end up with a 53 card maindeck and a 5 card sideboard (54 and 4 if you're still maindecking SoF&F) which leaves a total of 17 slots to customize your deck against the field you expect to see.  I should probably also mention that at least 3 of your maindeck slots are going to be land of some kind; I can make this deck work on 25 land but some configurations want 26 or even 27 mana sources to function properly.

Well folks that's about all I can handle in one sitting; sorry for the overall length of this article but when you're trying to describe the best and imho most complicated deck in the format while simultaneously attempting to explain all of your card choices so that even an absolute beginner can understand, "brevity" sorta goes out the window.  Hopefully you've all enjoyed reading this and be sure to tune in next time for "Skullkickers Part II: Slangin Packages" for ideas on how you can tune Skullblade for your specific metagame!  Until then gang always remember that Germ tokens are black and keep it weird.

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