Prepare to Defend Your Turf

Posted in Feature on October 25, 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."

Ihsan's Shade
Let's dial it back ten years. 1997. The Cleveland Indians blow it in game seven of the World Series instead of game seven of the measly ALCS (more of a heartbreaker, less embarrassing). Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a brand spanking, unproven, mid-season replacement on the fledgling television network the WB, and Titanic—easily the worst movie in the history of cinema *—is crowned as the biggest moneymaker of all time, and ironically, Best Picture. The Dojo... sorry, The Magic Dojo is not only the best, but basically the only Magic strategy site... despite being only a few short months young. And when you hit the local PTQ... Baby, it's the Wild West out there.

What are you playing? Black-Red Disruption with three Ihsan's Shades to kill. Do you sideboard out your Hypnotic Specters against White Weenie? Do you tell the White Weenie player you are taking them out to see if he sides out his Swords to Plowshares? Necro? That's cheesy. Necro sucks! How can that deck win? I am playing a red deck—(sorry, this is 1997, two years before Red Deck Wins)—burn deck. What did you lose lose to last round? Blue-White Millstone? No... Blue-White Icy Manipulator / Blinking Spirit kill; he kept tapping my Ihsan's Shade!

U.S. Nationals used to be my favorite tournament of the year (Standard has been my favorite format for more then ten years, with only brief flashes of Block Constructed), but as I've gotten older and more geographically implacable, I now love States / Champs. All the above, that's why I love States. States is the last bastion of a decade past. In these days of Top 8 decklists every week, numerous Magic strategy sites, mailing lists, and podcasts, it is the closest thing that 2007 has to a Wild Wild West. It's Deadwood. It's Mos Eisley. The rules haven't reached States yet. You can't watch old Magic Online Top 8s to figure out what is good. You've got to have a little gamble to you. You have to be good. There's a metagame... Is there a metagame? Figure it out. Can you figure it out? Metagame'll never hold. States is lawless. States is raw. States is a time of new cards, new interactions, but few certainties. It's the first time we can see the new cards unleashed. It's a brief window before Worlds, your first and often last opportunity to try out, run, and even win using a cool combination of lands and spells before that idea is proven unplayable by the harsh realities of a developing, then developed, tournament metagame. There aren't any PT slots. You fight for glory only; at States, you fight to fight.

States comes around only once a year (okay, that's not true... but Standard States is what I care about this week). It's your rock 'em sock 'em shot to Defend Your Turf.

And defend turf is what I plan to do this weekend. States has been good to me in recent years. Second (losing the 74/75 mirror) and first in consecutive events. I practiced quite a bit for both events and can tell you from experience that no metagame predictions that I or anyone make at this point are going to be completely accurate.

In 2005 I tested mostly against White Weenie, Boros, and Gifts Ungiven. Granted I played against Boros twice and Gifts Ungiven twice, but the Gifts deck was the same guy! We clashed once near the end of the Swiss, then again in the Top 4. I played against Heartbeat of Spring (a deck I had never heard of), a crazy black-blue-green second-turn Hypnotic Specter / Putrefy / Mana Leak contraption in the last round of Swiss, and my own playtest partners three times! Some metagame!

Last year was even stranger. There was a powerful new deck in the Ken Adams creation Solar Pox, winner of the 2006 Star City Games pre-States warmup (we'll get to this year's in a bit)... But that didn't phase the metagame, not in New York, anyway. Nor did I play against one of the predicted Boros or Zoo aggro decks... Instead I hit Mono-White Control, Dragonstorm (who knew that was playable?), Blue-Green-White, Blue-White, Zoo (finally), regular Solar Flare, Green-White Glare, Solar Flare again, Blue Snow Control, Blue-White-Red (a kind of mirror), and finally my own Blue-Green deck. I only played the same archetype once, where I ended up with a loss and an ID into Top 8. The point? For States, no matter what the signs seem to indicate, the door is wide open. That's what the Development squad up in Renton, WA has been getting at the past couple of years: a diverse, blunt metagame with few edges and ideally no dominant deck.

In a sense, States is difficult to prepare for; in a sense it is terrible for people who love to playtest because their efforts are in some wise less efficient. They can't log a lot of time in specific matchups with the expectation that they will hit each of these three times on the way to winning the tournament, making that time worthwhile in a concrete way. In another, wonderful, sense, it rewards players in a very different way than mid-PTQ season archetype templating. Because of a less rigid metagame structure, "hate" is less prevalent (if prevalent at all) so if you figure out the most powerful strategy, go ahead and play it. In that sense, States Standard is the equal and opposite of Regionals Standard. If you had the full-on Dredge deck for States, it would probably wag about some kind of tournament wow factor, winning everything in sight on turn two—and dazzlingly—rather than inspiring its masters to scorn life and complain about the prevalence of Tormod's Crypt, Leyline of the Void, and Extirpate.

That is not to say that playtesting is not worthwhile. We tested the spit out of Standard the past two years and really felt like we had a good grasp of the available strategies, which helped to refine our successful deck choices despite the fact that we didn't get handed our predicted matchups. For States I try to playtest against competent, published, decklists pushing in a myriad of different directions. My friend Zvi Mowshowitz taught me that it isn't important to test against the "best" decks, but instead the decks that are actually going to show up. The fact of the matter is that your opponents are much less likely to have one of these secret best decks, and that you might be discouraged from a good option by pitting your weapon of choice against the wrong gauntlet.

Following is a spread of the decks that I used to prepare for this year's States. I tried to test against a variety of different threats... Tarmogoyfs in different configurations, Gargadons, ex-planeswalkers, &c. Speaking of planeswalkers, I must admit that I didn't realize how good this new class of card might be until the past week or so, and I probably haven't logged enough battle time with Jace Beleren or some similar across the table.


The only controlling deck I tested against this year (for the most part) was Teachings with Nameless Inversion. I initially tested against a deck suggested by my friend Pat Chapin, but the gauntlet deck I am going to present is instead a Top 16 deck from the recent Star City event:

Kenny Mayer's Blue-Black-White Teachings

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Kenny Mayer's deck emerges from the Time Spiral Block style of polychromatic Mystical Teachings (rather than the straight black-blue version from Ravnica / Time Spiral Standard), but has several innovations suited to Lorwyn Standard. First of all, this deck runs a full set of Shriekmaw; Shriekmaw has been called the best creature in Lorwyn Block, and for good reason... This format looks to be dominated by creatures... and Shriekmaw kills most of them. Grim Harvest is very effective with Shriekmaw with or without evoke, and plays much like Corpse Dance when combined with the sideboarded Bottle Gnomes. Unlike most Time Spiral Block decks, Kenny's runs a more solid permission base of Cryptic Command alongside Pact of Negation... Powerful, but not particularly quick.

The special something that this deck brings to the table is Haakon, Stromgald Scourge plus Nameless Inversion. Nameless Inversion plays like a Knight, meaning that if you have Haakon in play, you can "machine gun" with the changeling Nameless Inversion, killing a small creature for every at your command. Careful Consideration is there to set it all up, including dumping Haakon into the graveyard to get it going. Planning on playing Kithkin? If you plan to win at States, have a plan for Haakon.

Predator.dec recently held a so-called "Mockvitational" which included multiple fun formats, culminating in Lorwyn Standard. The finals was Teachings over Predator.dec... Kind of like the end of Time Spiral Block, where Teachings both started and finished as the best, but the developed Predator.dec was right behind it.

David Irvine's Predator.dec

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This is just Dave Irvine's deck from the Top 8 of Grand Prix–San Fancisco, a nod to Josh Ravitz's PTQ deck from a week or so beforehand. I didn't make any changes to the deck for testing purposes. The mana can maybe be improved by a Treetop Village (over the Vesuva, as both come into play tapped) but for Predator.dec, Time Spiral Block lands are exactly what you want.

Kavu Predator
The biggest addition the deck could make is Gaddock Teeg, which I think would come in over Riftsweeper... but in my testing Riftsweeper was actually great, humiliating Epochrasites and scaring off Greater Gargadons.

Predator.dec remains a superb archetype, but still potentially dodgy due to the possibility of an improved Mystical Teachings. I am tempted to play it within one card in the main on Saturday. If you have never played against a Kavu Predator with Grove of the Burnwillows in play... Wow. It's pretty disgusting. Want a Standard upgrade for the beatdown matchups? Sean McKeown suggests Condemn, which is just filthy in context.

Predator.dec has tons of evasion to fly into the opponent's planeswalkers, and main deck Haakon defense by way of a nasty 3/2 flyer in Stonecloaker (as a beatdown deck, this one has to be a little wary). It can blow most Planeswalkers clear off the board for three mana, then swing over with a 7/7. Pow.

Kithkin White Weenie, Splashing Green

I thought it was important to test against this because my deck of choice at the time was a medium slow creature deck that had a couple of expensive non-creature spells. Therefore going up against Gaddock Teeg and Oblivion Ring seemed like important angles from which to challenge my deck.

I got this deck from a tournament listing, but apologize that I can't seem to find it, and can therefore not credit the deck's pilot.

Sample Green-White Kithkin

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Oblivion Ring is an important card to test against because it can deal with basically any permanent. This makes Kithkin very dangerous against big spell decks. You can't necessarily tap out for a giant threat (blocker) with the expectation that it is going to save the day against a small swarm.

Gaddock Teeg is of course the most format-warping card to come up in some time. While not every deck loses explicitly when Gaddock Teeg hit's the table, I would consider it foolish to completely ignore the Kithkin Advisor when laying out one's noncreature spells for States. You don't want to get stuck with a full grip, plenty of mana, and nothing to do.

If you plan to play Kithkin, I encourage you to be a little wary on your mana. I found this one's base to be a bit unstable due to the high number of four-mana threats. Also Forest is pretty bad in this archetype... Three Forests for four Teegs makes for some very awkward draws.

When playing against Kithkin, watch out for Mana Tithe! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Indy Watson's is a different look at White Weenie... No green, no Teeg, but a planeswalker there to help the beatdown cause (Top 16 last week at Star City):

Indy Watson's White Weenie

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My friend Mark Young dispatched me at the aforementioned Mockvitational with a Red-Black Goblins list. I tested a fair amount against his updated version:

Mark Young's Goblins

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Wort, Boggart Auntie
Mark doesn't even have Knucklebone Witch (he said that this is a red deck and meant it)... Still I found Goblins to be one of the most challenging decks in the format to beat. It can hit from so many angles, come out blazing, set up the Gargadon strike, or finish with an uncounterable Molten Disaster given any margin.

This deck has numerous threats "that matter." Beyond the typical Greater Gargadon and Mogg War Marshall, Mark's deck packs Nantuko Husk as a potentially lethal attacker, as well as Siege Gang Commander, the scourge of too-short Onslaught Block Constructed games, as either a solitary killer or Gargadon / Husk food (I never let Nantuko Husk through in testing, and I encourage you to adopt the same philosophy). Again, with 15+ burn cards, close games can end in heartbreak off the top facing this one.

Speaking of burn spells, one of the new Lorwyn interactions that Goblins can take advantage of is Tarfire + Wort, Boggart Auntie. Wort is happy to return a Siege-Gang Commander every turn, but you can't beat the sure speed of an improved Shock... not at this price.

Sadin-Style Red-Green

I made this myself, based on the principles of my friend Steve Sadin's deck from Ravnica / Coldsnap / Time Spiral Standard.... Nothing too innovative here; the goal is to have a playtest deck that can present a certain number of relevant threats, specifically Greater Gargadon alongside Mogg War Marshal (combo) and the ubiquitous Tarmogoyf.

Sadin-Style Red-Green

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Two thing to note for this deck, one for, one against.

For: Tarfire and Tarmogoyf get along very nicely. Tarfire is kind of a Seal of Fire replacement, serving as a +2 superstrength waiting in the wings.

Against: Fighting this kind of deck in Games 2 and 3, you should have a solution to Manabarbs. It doesn't have to be Purity, but if you don't have a way to take or maintain control when the opponent drops this enchantment, you will have to do a lot of thinking and a fair bit of math. Okay, that's a lie. You're probably just dead.

I'd be remiss in any kind of a States prep without mentioning the deck that won last week's event at Star City, the Solar Pox of the year, as it were.

Drue Dorsey's Elves

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I was as shocked as anyone to see Elves come up on top. That said, this deck has a lot going for it.

  1. It's Planeswalker Week... Drue's deck is only the second one we've seen that runs a planeswalker. Make sure you brush up on your planeswalker rules before States. Planeswalkers have their own rules, and they can be confusing and affect your approach to a board.

  2. Drue can Forestwalk all over anyone with, well, Forests. Again this is not something that bowls over the entire metagame, but Drue's setup here is perfect for racing. You might not think of Constructed as a format with a lot of blocking, but often it's the fear of a bad block that keeps attackers at home. Not Dorsey's. Not if you're green.

  3. No one saw this coming (I didn't, at least). It's awfully hard to prepare for a deck that you've never heard of. In this case, pretty much everyone is vaguely aware that there is such a thing as an Elf and that that tribe has numerous interesting interactions... It's a different matter to expect to see dedicated Elves when you sit down at the table. The interactions between tribe members are largely self-explanatory and highly synergistic. From a pure quality perspective, Wren's Run Vanquisher might be the best of the talented bunch.

Tactical Time with the Planes Janes

Garruk Wildspeaker
We (or at least I) figured out planeswalkers quite late in testing. They are at least conditionally very good and change the dynamic of a matchup in much the same way that a suspended Greater Gargadon will. There are several different archetypes of players and their approaches to fighting planeswalkers, with those perspectives largely skewed by how much experience they have, against these new cards and in general. You'll have players who underestimate planeswalkers, have no answers, no interest in attacking them, and act surprised when they flat-out lose to the outrageous abilities. You'll have the opposite players who go nutso frenetic when one hits play, and attack it with everything, even when they don't have to. Planeswalkers are both powerful and largely expensive. They are like any other Magic cards that fall under those adjectives, and at least three of them (Liliana Vess, Chandra Nalaar, and Garruk Wildspeaker) will win the game almost immediately if left unmolested. I would advise having some sort of cheap planeswalker suppression, even if it is just Rune Snag or Incinerate, going into this tournament. States is the Wild West; don't saunter into that saloon without your trusty sidearm.

One of the specific things that came up in testing was planeswalker v. red mage. How do you approach this fight? With Garruk Wildspeaker, my plan was to just make creatures and let the red player burn out my planeswalker if he wanted to. This made Garruk into little more than a Call of the Herd, but with my planeswalker soaking up damage and my 3/3 holding the ground against a team of largely 1/1 creatures, it seemed like a continuingly good deal... a cheaper Kavu Climber at worst, and a discount double Hill Giant with some regularity. I got Garruk to that critical four loyalty on a couple of occasions, but it was impossible to ever untap with the full four. Everything and anything, including a simple Keldon Marauders, can keep you from hitting Overrun loyalty... I eventually stopped trying even when I had an insurmountable creature advantage (but the card remained pretty good against red, awesome in most other spots).

When you have an "insurmountable creature advantage," you don't have to Overrun to win. Most red decks perform poorly when asked to fight attrition-style against bigger creatures. I found more luck attacking from that angle than trying to win in the flat-out most outrageous possible fashion. That you can do against green!

Good luck this weekend unless you are playing me.

* Consider the fact that you get ~50 Pulp Fictions for the price of one Titanic.

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