Monday, June 20, 2011

Standard Deviations #16 - A Funeral for a Friend

As I sit here writing this it's 4 AM on a surprisingly warm summer morning; I know I should be in bed letting rest and reason heal my wounds but unfortunately I simply can't.   No, as others around me have been celebrating like it's the last scene in Return of the Jedi I've been sitting quietly here in the dark; thinking, rationalizing, trying to comprehend the decisions made by those who police the game I love and most of all mourning the loss of a beautiful opportunity.  You see, I have a dirty little barely kept secret folks; I was probably the only person on earth hoping U/W Mystic would survive today's Ban List update.  If you've been living under a rock or simply weren't near a computer today you can find all the gory details here; the short version is that Stoneforge Mystic and Jace the Mindsculptor have been banned effective July 1st, 2011.  To say that this decision upset/bothered me would be a severe understatement and despite secretly believing that we'd get to this point I had honestly hoped with all my heart that somehow, someway would wouldn't.

Now before you start yelling at me that "Caw Blade was too good" and "those cards were driving people out of Standard" I want to explain that I know and I agree with you; at least to a certain point.  Caw Blade was without a doubt one of the most dominant decks in the history of Magic and completely environment deforming.  I know for a fact that I have started pretty much every single deck I've built since Pro Tour Paris with the question "how does this deck perform against Caw Blade?"  I won't however agree that the deck was unbeatable; properly tuned versions of RDW, Exarch - Splinter Twin, Lotus Cobra and Vengevine decks were more than capable of taking it out "on any given Sunday".  Unfortunately none of these decks match-up as well with the *other* decks in the metagame as U/W Mystic did and thus the smart money in the format was clearly on ignoring these potential bad match-ups and just playing Caw Blade; which people did in droves.  This in turn created the *reality* of a one deck format which clearly upset enough people on both casual and competitive levels to drastically reduce tournament attendance numbers across the board.  It's easy to dismiss dropping attendance numbers at FNM and Gamesday events as "random variance" but when Pro Tour Qualifiers in prime locations are pulling in half as many people as they were last year it's hard to argue that something isn't wrong.  Why people chose to simply "not play" rather than enter tournaments en mass with decks meta'd to beat Caw Blade is still somewhat beyond me but ultimately the reasons why matter less than the results; nobody going to tournaments is bad for Magic as a business.  In light of these two fundamentally true situations it's actually pretty easy to see why "the banhammer" came down so hard on Caw Blade this morning.

So if I understand that Caw Blade was at once too good in the format and actively driving away players how come I'm sitting in the dark crying into my orange juice?  Well for starters I've never been of the mindset that having a format with one clear best deck is a bad thing.  There is a price to be paid for being the object of everyone's spite and playing "the best deck" in any given Standard is a good way to learn all about how to play against enemy sideboard cards; in game 1.  Additionally anyone who understands either competitive card-gaming or the science of game theory already knows that there will *always* be a best deck in any given card pool so I fail to understand why people get so upset when said deck becomes common knowledge.  Now you can argue that Caw Blade was too good by so much as to render the format irrelevant but as I've already mentioned I don't believe that to be true.  I test Magic decks like a junkie goes through rock and I can honestly say that more people should have been playing RDW and Splinter Twin than have been so far at a very minimum.  What's more if there *has* to be a best deck in the format I actually think a deck like Caw Blade is a very good choice; although a little too pricey I guess.  Caw Blade is a very skill intensive deck that actively rewards foresight, intuition and masterful play while simultaneously falling to rubbish in the hands of a weaker/less prepared pilot.  In this way a Caw Blade player gains an incredible amount of control over the mirror match; all he has to do is *play* better to win!  Compare this to Cascade wars with Jund, Bitterblossom races with Faeries or even classic examples like "who can play the last Lin Sivvi?", "does my Psychatog live longer than yours?" or "who's Arcbound Ravager is bigger yours or mine?"  Given the choice I'll take a deck like Caw Blade every time because I have confidence in my own skill as a player while I have yet to master the art of willing the proper cards to the top of my deck in the mirror.  I'm sure some of you reading this will say I'm insane but I honestly had no problem with this Standard format whatsoever and actively enjoyed playing with and against Caw Blade decks.  It certainly doesn't hurt that I was winning a lot.

Finally of course I had a very personal reason to dislike the decision to ban Jace and the Mystic.  As regular readers of this blog know I've somehow managed to scrape my way through enough LGS drafts and FNM events these past 10 months to qualify for the Canadian National Championships based on my DCI rating.  This is of course a *huge* step up in terms of competition for me and as a result I've been practicing more than is healthy for an adult with a life and a job.  I've also been carefully watching the deck-lists and tournament results here in the post-NPH environment and arming myself with the necessary knowledge to actually have a legitimate shot at doing well in my very first "serious" Magic tournament.  As my understanding of the format grew I started to find consistent, effective solutions to winning the Caw Blade mirror without giving up significant ground in my other match-ups.  What's more I noticed that *most* other U/W players simply were not addressing the meta-game in the same way I was.  I won't lie, I was pretty excited because I honestly felt I had a very real, legitimate chance to at least crash the top 8 from out of nowhere assuming all things remained the same.  Naturally of course I may have been deluding myself; I'll let you be the judge of that when I post the deck-list in a moment.  Regardless, as the set date for format bans and restrictions approached I found myself hoping and praying with all my might that my golden opportunity wouldn't be snatched away at the last minute.  Naturally when that very scenario came to pass I was and still am crushed; while I know the decision is not in any way personal to me it's almost impossible not to feel like all of my efforts have been wasted.  I won't lie and I understand that it's very early in the morning and I'm still quite upset but I have honestly questioned my desire to even *attend* the tournament several times this evening.        

So with all of the explaining, arguing and speculating out of the way I'm forced to admit that there is nothing left to do but mourn.  Decisions have been made by people who don't even know I exist and for better or worse if I want to keep playing Magic I'm going to have to accept them.  I'm sure eventually I will do just that but tonight I can't; so I sit, and I brood and I cry a little on the inside.  Mostly though I just keep flipping through the deck, looking at the cards and occasionally shuffling them up while wondering what might have been.  Through it all I can't tell if it's a sort of vanity or some desperate attempt at closure that makes me want to share this deck with somebody, *any*body before I finally sleep this morning.  Whatever it is indulge me for a moment and have a look:

"Skull Blade Version 3.0 - U/W Fish w/ Equipment:

Creatures - 13:

4x Spellskite
4x Stoneforge Mystic
3x Mirran Crusader
2x Emeria Angel

Spells - 13:

4x Preordain
3x Spell Pierce
2x Divine Offering
2x Mana Leak
2x Dismember

Planeswalkers - 4:

4x Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Equipment - 4:

2x Batterskull
1x Sword of Feast and Famine
1x Sword of War and Peace

Lands - 26:

4x Celestial Colonnade
4x Seachrome Coast
3x Glacial Fortress
3x Island
3x Plains
2x Scalding Tarn
1x Marsh Flats
4x Tectonic Edge
2x Inkmoth Nexus

Sideboard - 15:

2x Condemn
2x Oust
4x Celestial Purge
1x Divine Offering
1x Dismember
1x Mirran Crusader 
2x Day of Judgment
1x Emeria Angel
1x Batterskull

The basic idea in the mirror is that my Skites make it impossible to control my equipment cards while I maindeck multiple answers to my opponent's.  Emeria Angel is there primarily to answer enemy Hawks but once again combined with the protection main-deck Spell Skites offer she's actually quite the game winner.  Unfortunately I'm a little too sad and a little too tired to offer in depth analysis on a deck that won't be legal in 9 days but I can assure you I tested this deck into the ground.  It destroys the mirror, performs incredibly well against Splinter Twin and once you learn how to play it can actually beat most aggro decks game 1 unless your opponent is a very good player.  I feel *very* confident that I would have done well with this deck at Nationals if circumstances had played out a little differently.  Feel free to tell me otherwise in the comments; though it seems like kind of a pointless argument now that the deck is dead.

Well folks that's about all I have for the moment; I'm sorry I couldn't bring you happier news or a fun new deck list to try out.  I'm going to grab another glass of orange juice and get some sleep; hopefully this will feel less devastating when I wake up tomorrow.  Thanks for indulging me a little bit this time and as always thanks for reading.  Sorry, I'm too stunned for a witty parting line this time gang.  Ciao.

1 comment:

  1. Posted at 6:12 AM says a lot.

    I understand what you are going through. I don't know if you know the history of Abeyance, but sometimes the rules change on us with little time to prepare.

    I gave your decklist a spin to see how it played. It took a little getting used to, particularly in regard to mulligans. Once I started getting the hang of it I really appreciated how it played, particularly vs. Twin. While it isn't the list I would have played (I would have run Twin-Blade), I am confident you would have done very well in the constructed portion of Canadian Nationals. In fact, I would have hated to face you in the "mirror" given our respective gameplans.

    I fully approve of the bannings. In fact, I think Aaron's solution was better than correct, it was elegant.However, I understand that something was lost.

    All card games are a mixture of luck and skill. Sometimes the best deck plays out in a fairly random fashion. Jund is a great example with this due to its unstable mana and cascade. When luck is at its zenith, Magic is a lousy game and the better player wins 55% of the time. With Caw-Blade, luck was at its nadir relative to skill. Never before in the history of Magic had a mirror been so skill intensive. Historically, even skill intensive decks would generally have fairly random mirrors. Caw-Blade was the exception to that rule. There were a lot of reasons for this:

    First off, no deck outside of Necro mulliganed better. Preordain allowed you to smooth out your draws and plan ahead. You had 8 tutors that provided card advantage. 4 found mythic pieces of equipment, while the other 4 found each other. The rest of the deck was a bit more flexible. You could modify your removal suite, planewalker mix (more on this in a second), countermagic, men, and manabase. You might add baby Jaces and Sun Titan, or cut lands and add cheap removal. You could add Black for targeted discard, or go with Emeria Angel and Phyrexian Metamorph. Whatever you did, you needed a gameplan for the mirror, and you needed to know how to execute that gameplan. If you were lacking in either strategy or tactics, you were in severe trouble. In addition to the rest of the decisions you had to make to get the most out of the deck, there was Jace TMS.

    Jace TMS: Better than all. How good did it feel to achieve parity and drop Jace? You could unsummon to break parity and attack. You could brainstorm to begin an avalanche of card advantage. You could even fateseal and control your opponent's draws. Remember what I said about luck? When you fatesealed and left the card on top did any of your opponent's manage to not slump in their chair? The better you played with Jace, the more he rewarded you. In fact, the better you played with the deck, the more rewarding it was. It was...

    it was...

    It was beautiful: (Beauty: A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight)

    It was beautiful: (Beauty: A combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense)

    It was beautiful: (Beauty: An excellent specimen or example of something.)

    It was beautiful.

    It is a shame it had to die. It is a shame that the other decks in the format weren't powerful enough to compete with it. It's a shame it drove players away from the game. It's a shame you can't take the best deck you've ever had, perhaps the deck that you've worked the hardest to learn and know, to Canadian Nationals.

    From one hockey fan to another I'm sorry. If you want help brewing for the new format please let me know.

    Seth Burn