All You Can Do Is Aim

Posted in Feature on June 7, 2007

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Rewards_of_DiversityIn two days, it will be time once again for U.S. Regionals. These tournaments are some of the most highly anticipated (largely) amateur tournaments every year, with the top four finishers in each of several tournaments receiving an invitation to the 2007 U.S. National Championship. The format, as ever, will be Standard. As with basically every Standard tournament since, say Champs 2005, we are surrounded by Tier Two cards, meaning that there will be no true Tier One-defined Decks to Beat, but instead a tremendous number of different decks. If memory serves, I didn't play the same deck even twice last year... Let me think for a second... homebrew, Greater Gifts, Vore, Battle of Wits, Tron-Wildfire, Blue-White Control, Blue-Green Legends, Black-White Rats... Nope... no duplicates... I would not be surprised to find the same phenomenon this year.

That said, there will be a metagame. There are dominant decks held over from previous formats and the new decks shouldn't be too hard to predict. Please note that I am writing this before Frank Karsten's Wednesday column is up, and it is entirely possible that Online Tech's the Fanatic will have some awesome post-Future Sight Standard deck lists for you to download. If that is the case, you will be doing yourself a favor to use Frank's column as a reference. That said, these are the decks, in large part, that my friends and I are testing against for Regionals. Just to brush you up on proper testing methodology, here are some basic rules for selecting opponents:

  1. It is generally pointless to have rogue decks on both sides of the table.
  2. It is usually correct to test against the highest finishing known and published version of deck for playtest, rather than choosing based on personal preference, because...
  3. In a single day event that cuts from Top 8 to Top 4 to invitations, it is more important to beat the decks that will show up than the best versions of the best decks.

While a great many decks will appear on Saturday, I predict that the following four decks will be the most popular decks at U.S. Regionals... When I say "I," I mean BDM told me that they will be the most popular, and it seems most pundits agree. I listened to him on his call for Pro Tour–Honolulu last year—especially with regards to the popularity of B/W decks—and the Pro Tour Historian turned out to be spot on, which made for dramatically improved metagame decisions.


Makahito Mihara's Dragonstorm

In this metagame, Dragonstorm is the only deck that actually gets called "the best deck" on a regular basis. It has the unique pedigree of being the Weapon of Choice for reigning World Champion Makihito Mihara. Dragonstorm is among the fastest decks in terms of actually winning the game, and it commands a number of interaction-busting elements, including Gigadrowse for blue, Remand for everybody, and Ignorant Bliss for sideboarded Persecutes.


Dragonstorm is named for its central card, the game-ending Sorcery Dragonstorm, of course. The goal is to use Lotus Bloom, Rite of Flame, and Seething Song to simultaneously add tons of mana to the pool (at least nine total) while jacking Storm count. Once Dragonstorm is played, it piggybacks each and every mana accelerator to set up (ideally) four Bogardan Hellkites, which send 20 to the face. Hunted Dragon is present for backup (say you've accidentally drawn a Hellkite) or cleanup.

Outlook and Fundamental Turn:

Dragonstorm can potentially win on turn one. No, really. With the right Rite of Flame draw, it can happen. However, the deck will usually give up at least four turns during which you can commit your mischief. As was stated above, Dragonstorm is a resilient combo deck. Gigadrowse provides a tremendous amount of defense against blue counterspell walls, and the deck itself is naturally resistant to permission due to the nature of storm.


Pact of Negation
I have seen Pact of Negation in some lists. I didn't initially think Pact of Negation was going to be the best possible Dragonstorm option because there is no guarantee that the will even have the next upkeep; that said, I have hear of players increasing storm count by countering their own Dragonstorms, then countering the counter (there won't be a "next " turn). While Bogardan Hellkite is the preferred kill method, Hunted Dragon is present as an alternate kill that can be easily played, or searched up in case of accidentally drawing Dragons... Tarox Bladewing can serve a similar role.


Dragonstorm has to have a hand of at least a couple of spells in order to net mana and produce a lethal number of Dragons. As such it is vulnerable to cards that prevent its ability to keep a full hand, such as Persecute. Against many permission decks, the Dragonstorm agenda is to tap the opponent out with Gigadrowse and then finish off the game after untapping. This formula is dismal against Rewind into Shadow of Doubt, making the deck a dog to Dralnu.


Dragonstorm is not the only Storm deck in the metagame. Frank Karsten recently mentioned a Hatching Plans / Perilous Research deck that can win on Ignite the Memories or Empty the Warrens, kind of a Standard TEPS (TSPS?). This style of deck runs Claws of Gix as a zero mana method of increasing its spell count going into the end game Red... The combination and synergy with Hatching Plans and the strategy overall is very inviting, or at least exciting to watch.


Peter Akeley's Gruul

Mark Young, a DC-area player and columnist at Beckett Magic: The Gathering and Star City Games, recently told me that there is only one matchup in this metagame that he really and truly wants to make sure he beats, and that matchup is Gruul. The Gruul deck is by far the most important beatdown deck in the field, a beneficiary of a fine pedigree, drowning onetime leaders like Boros and Ghost-whatever (Orzhov) out of the metagame with, or at least thanks to, Sulfur Elementals.


Kird Ape, Llanowar Elves, or even Seal of Fire get the party started. From there it's Scab-Clan Mauler or another 3/3 on the second turn, into a very aggressive attack pattern with a predicted end game on Char; Gruul is the latest in a long line of early game beats, late game fire decks, riding a lineage as old as Magic.

Outlook and Fundamental Turn:

Gruul's best openers are all one-drop / two-drop, ideally Kird Ape into Scab-Clan Mauler. Fight this opening and your chances of beating Gruul will go through the roof. The deck is relentless and unforgiving of missed land drops or loose play, and some versions can win as quickly as turn four.


Among new cards, Magus of the Moon is the most likely to make an appearance in the deck (main or sideboard), though Tarmogoyf has been appearing with increasing consistency. Look for Riftsweeper to play spoiler—again main or side—for everything from Rift Bolt to Lotus Bloom.


Gruul is strongest in the early and middle games, and will usually only win a drawn-out grind on burn spells. Akeley's deck, which won a recent tournament at Star City Games, has only 11 burn spells; there are versions on the 'Net with as many as 20, plus a set of Scorched Rusalkas. It is one of the fastest decks in the field but is challenged in racing situations by Dragonstorm.


While all the decks fall under a greater Gruul naming umbrella, you will undoubtedly see versions based on lots of pump spells, a concerted split second theme, or, again, 20 burn spells. While many of these decks have cards in common, playing against them can be very different.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy's Red-Green Aggro

This deck by Ben Peebles-Mundy was my original Gruul playtest deck. Playing it is probably pretty similar in game plan to playing Peter Akeley's deck, Mark Herberholz's deck from last year, etc. All of them want to get in beats, hit a few times, and Char. However, playing against it is very unique. This deck is full of pump cards, most specifically Stonewood Invocation, so saving instant removal for combat to get in a greedy move may be a death sentence. Its finisher is Timbermare, so tapping out for a giant blue creature in hopes of scaring away potential attackers is not an option.

Pat Sullivan has put together quite the little Gruul package that seems to be gaining momentum online. Don't be surprised if you lose to Keldon Marauders holding hands and sneaking down the lane with Skarrgan Pit-Skulk.


islands's Dralnu du Louvre

Though I pulled this version from Frank's forum database, the Dralnu strategy is properly credited as the World Championships brainchild of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, a look at black-blue permission that has become the default control strategy of the present metagame. Don't be fooled by the moniker; though you will fight a Lich Lord or two if you play enough, most decks today finish on Skeletal Vampire.


Dralnu is built to grind. This deck loves to go long, building incremental card advantage with Mystical Teachings and locking out the opponent with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. Among its virtues are cantrips fueling consistent mana development and the adoption of Damnation to shore up creature fights.

Outlook and Fundamental Turn:

Dralnu works in steps, assigning different reactive or developmental spells to different mana points. It can fight a Scab-Clan Mauler on turn one with Spell Snare, though Remand is the most important due to its essentially "Time Walk" function in the early game, as it helps to draw lands.


Possibly Delay. Delay + Teferi = a dead spell.


The most glaring problem for this deck is Detritivore. Dralnu has no good answer, save Persecute, and that only works if you can hit the Detritivorebefore it becomes suspended. While dangerous, Detritivore is not present in any of the four most popular decks.


While it doesn't have the same level of strategic customization as Gruul, two Dralnu decks will inevitably have numerous differences. How many Teferis? How many creatures? What is the permission suite? Can it defend with Persecute? As a Mystical Teachings silver bullet deck, Dralnu can play any number of unique singletons and sideboard options, from Extirpate to Draining Whelk to Haunting Hymn.


Hiroki Ootsuka's Dredge

With the printing of Bridge from Below, Dredge has gone from a cute strategy with some powerful long game incentives to one that can kill in a single turn, seemingly from nowhere. This version finished in the Top 8 of Nagano Regionals. You will see versions with slightly more, or no, green, Simian Spirit Guides or not, and varying numbers on Dread Return, Flame-Kin Zealot, and the enablers, but the core plan of the deck is generally the same. Here are two things that I would like to point out about Ootsuka's version in particular: Dryad Arbor... This lets him set up a Dread Return very quickly. Golgari Brownscale out of the sideboard... Most people consider Gruul a tough matchup, but the Brownscale actually excels there, gaining life and fighting and trading at the same time.


Play an enabler, viz. Magus of the Bazaar. Use the said enabler, generally on upkeep, to put a dredge card into the graveyard. Dredge[no autocard on any instance], filling the graveyard. The goal is to get Bridge from Below into the graveyard, flip over some Narcomoebas, and flash Dread Return. Sacrificing three creatures to Dread Return, with the intention of returning Flame-Kin Zealot to play, should produce six, nine, whatever number of tokens via the Bridge. All these creatures gain haste and size from the Flame-Kin Zealot. All in.

Dredge's advocates will say that while the deck's core plan is to set up a massive attack turn from the graveyard, it can play incrementally by stalling with Stinkweed Imp and closing with Golgari Grave-Troll.

Outlook and Fundamental Turn:

Magus of the Bazaar
Dredge is highly explosive and can win very quickly with the right draw—or should we say dredges with kills on the second turn available so long as ritual sacrifices are made to the correct luck gods (first-turn Magus of the Bazaar, ability on upkeep discarding two Bridges and a Golgari Grave-Troll; flip the Troll turning over Flame-Kin Zealot, Dread Return, Bridge from Below and three Narcomoebas... Flash the Flame-Kin, profiting by nine 2/2 fellows, any and all gain the boost and haste... All in).


Dredge was a deck before Future Sight, with various game plans based on Seers, Zur's Weirding, Traitor's Clutch... The main additions, the additions that make the deck in fact, are all Future Sight, specifically Bridge from Below and Narcomoeba.


Though it is probably the most exciting of Standard's linear decks top-down, Dredge is possibly the most easily disrupted combo deck in recent memory (though some will tell you that title belongs to Project X). Any Rusalka, because it can sacrifice itself or another creature, will eliminate Bridge from Below. Extirpate has giant splash damage targets in either Dread Return or Bridge from Below, and Tormod's Crypt—especially on the back of Tolaria West—can end things before they ever begin. Simple removal strategies based on killing enablers with Seal of Fire and Volcanic Hammer can be hell on this deck's early game development. To be fair, many Bridge players have been siding in Leyline of the Void to prevent a certain amount of disruption, but I think that even the most vocal Dredge players would concede that the first game is almost always more favorable than the side boarded ones.


There are many variations with differing early games, for example Llanowar Mentor as an alternate enabler not played in every single version. There is a significant amount of customization available within the archetype regardless of the sameness of middle and end game plans.

In my testing these are the main decks that have to be considered for testing purposes, though given the massive number of Tier Two cards between eight sets, there are obviously more decks than just these four. Here are some others you may want to fight or consider:

Angelfire / Blue-Red 'Tron

Angelfire is a strategy near and dear to more than one columnist on this site. It isn't as controlling as Dralnu, but it has the pedigree of playing the most great cards of any deck, as well as being capable of completely annihilating beatdown with its Lightning Helixes and Lightning Angels. Angelfire is generally considered a dog to Dragonstorm, highly draw-reliant against Dralnu, and with its back to the wall against Dredge, too, though playing lots of Detritivores and siding the right anti-combo hate cards can reverse any of these matchups. No Gruul player in his right mind wants the matchup.

Blue-Red 'Tron won the most recent big Standard event, giving the world its first look at Sulfur Elemental tech. The deck is top-down one of the most powerful strategies due to its massive mana capabilities, and can win in several different ways. Look for Regionals 'Tron decks to return to Wildfire form or add the big Blue and Red Suspend threats, which are infinitely exploitable here.

Mono-Red / Boros / Orzhov

Blood Knight
With Mono-Red one of the strongest decks of the Block Pro Tour, you know that there will be some players who think it is the right version of beat down to play. After all, did Dave Price need Kird Apes and Lightning Helixes to forge his legend? Blood Knight may have been a mistake... Red has never had quite this sort of a two-drop. It almost makes a man want to drop Scab-Clan Mauler. See what I mean?

Once the finest of the beatdown decks, Boros has fallen on hard times thanks to Sulfur Elemental. It's no fun investing in the game and setting up white men only to see every Savannah Lions binned at faster than ordinary instant speed by a 3/2 hater. Boros's main incentive over Gruul is Lightning Helix, perhaps Worship out of the sideboard; its main downside is being completely incapable of controlling a fairly commonly played creature.

Orzhov is an interesting topic of conversation. It has Castigate for Dragonstorm, has never been particularly frightened by Gruul, and should be able to show Dralnu a beat or two. On top of all that, it should be a good challenger for Dredge. Ghost Council of Orzhova and Plagued Rusalka are natural sacrifice outlets versus Bridges, and the black-white disruption should also pitch in. On the downside, if you go Orzhov, you should pay attention to your creature mix, maybe err away from the Lions and Shrieking Grotesques... There is no reason to fall prey to the same tactics that Boros does!

While we focused on just a few decks, know that Regionals will showcase dozens of different decks, many far flung from anything we've discussed here. That means that preparing for the tournament will be rough, but also that the field is wide open and opportunity will be plentiful for those who keep themselves flexible. Good luck with whatever you choose!

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