A War of Attrition

Posted in Top Decks on August 15, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

This year's Standard season is heading toward its final couple months, but there's still a lot of Magic to be played, including World Magic Cup Qualifiers starting this weekend. Having the chance to represent your country by being on the national team is awesome, and I'd highly recommend checking out the WMCQs if it's an option.

I've had the honor of doing so three times now, and the last time ended in a blaze of glory. Still, you don't need to be heading to a WMCQ to be interested in finding a good Standard deck to finish out the season, and one upside of having such an explored format is that you both have a ton of options and a lot of information about those options.

More Revelations from the Pro Tour

This is a card I'm going to miss, even if I am excited for a brand-new format. Even now, there are multiple different ways to build Sphinx's Revelation decks, and the lists can vary wildly. There are two fundamental ways to approach this deck, due to two mutually exclusive and powerful removal spells:

Because of the anti-synergy between the two cards, it really is one or the other, and both have their advantages. We just saw Ivan Floch win Pro Tour Magic 2015 with the Planar Cleansing version, so that seems like as a good a place to start as any.

Ivan Floch

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This is really a Sheep-based aggro deck (if you look at the last game of the Pro Tour), but it does a decent job controlling the game as well. As with pretty much any Rev deck, the main and only goal is to stay alive long enough to cast a Sphinx's Revelation, at which point you will stay alive longer, and cast more and more Revelations.

You can see this philosophy reflected in Ivan's win condition of choice: Elixir of Immortality. All Elixir does is keep you alive, as it prevents both decking and life loss, at which point you get to kill the opponent in a variety of extremely slow ways. Mutavault beatdown is one way, and Jace's ultimate is the second (grabbing one of the opponent's win conditions). This deck doesn't even have an Elspeth main, showing how committed it is to not-losing more than actually winning.

The main removal engine here consists of a bunch of sweepers, with Supreme Verdict and Planar Cleansing handling just about any threat the opponent can offer. In particular, Cleansing wipes the board of any and all Planeswalkers, which is critical because of how heavily some decks lean on Planeswalkers to fight WU decks. Cards like Xenagos, the Reveler; Domri Rade; Nissa, Worldwaker; and Chandra, Pyromaster are all part of how RG decks try and beat WU, and having a reset button that also deals with Planeswalkers is huge. It's also worth quickly noting how important the card Quicken is. Normally, Mutavault and Obzedat, Ghost Council are also problematic for WU, but I saw Ivan destroy many a Mutavault and Ghost Council by virtue of Quicken + Supreme Verdict, and Quicken into Divination is actually pretty good too. The cost of playing Quicken is very low, given that it's a one-mana card that replaces itself, and in a deck with seven sweepers and three Divinations, it more than earns the slot.

The main drawback of the Cleansing version is its glacial slowness. That the WU deck is slow is already a given, but this is slow even for WU decks. If this deck doesn't draw Supreme Verdict, it can't remove anything threatening from the board until turn six, and sometimes that's just unacceptable. If you don't have a Last Breath for the opponent's Pack Rat, you can occasionally just die to it, and Domri Rade goes ultimate before Cleansing when the WU deck is on the draw.

Additionally, even though Planar Cleansing does answer almost everything, there are also some key indestructible permanents floating around Standard these days. Thassa, God of the Sea and Erebos, God of the Dead are some of the more notable examples, and having to wait until you can sideboard in Deicide is often not a satisfactory answer.

One last note: if you play this particular version of WU, be prepared to play fast. Ivan plays this deck extremely quickly, and given how this deck is looking to close games, that's crucial. If you are 20% to draw on time whenever you play this deck, it's just not an acceptable choice, and you need to know that you will finish rounds on time if you are looking to play this in a tournament. Even if you are playing this outside of a tournament, I think your opponents will be grateful if you play at a fast pace, and you are more likely to have opponents if you make sure it isn't an agonizing experience (as much as you can, given that one of your win conditions is to naturally deck the opponent).

The alternative to the Cleansing version is to go with Detention Sphere for all your Planeswalker-removal needs, as Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa did.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa

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PV played this deck to a 27th-place finish at the Pro Tour, going 7–2–1 in the ten rounds of Standard. Even with the version of this deck that is capable of killing the opponent quickly, PV picked up one unintentional draw and finished two other rounds on time, and PV doesn't play particularly slowly. We don't often think of metagame factors like time when choosing decks, but we do live in a world governed by such things, and with decks like WU it does become relevant.

This deck doesn't have quite the sweeping power of the Cleansing version, but also doesn't need it as much. The Planar Cleansings in the other deck are critical at letting you come back from horrible board positions, but by playing four Detention Spheres and a Banishing Light, this version of the deck doesn't find itself in horrible board positions nearly as often. This deck plays more like a traditional attrition deck, trading one for one a bunch of times until it can cast Revelation to seal the deal.

Another big difference is that this deck is capable of dealing lethal damage to the opponent without jumping through a bunch of hoops. Ætherling is the main win condition, but having three copies of Elspeth, Sun's Champion means she closes out plenty of games, too. I agree with PV's choices here, and the logic makes sense:

"Why Ætherling over Elixir? I feel very strongly that Ætherling is correct. I've touched on this point many times, and my opinion hasn't changed; they're both kill conditions, but Ætherling is a real card, whereas Elixir is not. In many games, you play all your cards and then you're left with your last spell. If that's Ætherling, you win the game. If it's Elixir, you still need to topdeck a Sphinx's Revelation. In seven rounds, I won three games on Ætherling alone that I would not have won if it was an Elixir—partially because of time constraints (I won twice on extra turns) and partially because my opponent had insane board presence (things like Liliana, Connections, and Obzedat) and I had to kill them before they could capitalize on it. Ætherling does that, Elixir does not."

—Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, "UW in Portland"

I like this version a little more, especially given that multiple mono-blue decks made Top 8 at Grand Prix Utrecht last weekend. I like having ways to deal with Thassa, and the deck with Detention Sphere has more relevant early plays, as well as a more robust win condition. I do think the Planar Cleansing version is better against red-green decks, so if you expect to see a particularly large number of Stomping Grounds, Cleansing might be your best bet.

Walking the Planes

The most exciting new deck to come out of the Pro Tour (besides our insanely innovative combo of Mountains + red one-drops, of course) was the Jund Planeswalkers deck. Two different versions of it made Top 8, and because of its novelty (and power), I'd expect to see a fair amount of the deck over the next few months. It's a new deck, it's a fun deck, and it's a good deck.

The version that Pierre Mondon played was closer to the lists floating around on Magic Online before the Pro Tour, and very similar to the list Barry Smith played to the finals of the StarCityGames.com Open in Kansas City:

Pierre Mondon

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This is an attrition deck at its finest, and if I could describe it in one word, that word would be "Planeswalkers." If I could use two words, though, those words would be "incremental advantage," as that is exactly what the deck is trying to accumulate. Each removal spell buys you time to get your Planeswalkers going, each Courser of Kruphix draws you an extra 0.4 cards a turn, and each Planeswalker gives you an advantage for each turn it remains in play. Having played a lot of Planeswalker-based decks, I've seen a lot of opponents get further and further behind as the Planeswalkers pile on, with each successive Planeswalker being harder and harder to deal with. Once the first one sticks for more than a turn, it becomes much less likely that your opponent will be able to kill the subsequent ones, and when you are activating two or three Planeswalkers each turn, the game ends quickly (or at least is effectively over, but you get to keep playing, which is the best).

The deck also gets a ton of awesome tools against slower decks, with main-deck Rakdos's Returns backed up by Slaughter Games and Duress. The main deck I'd be worried about with this deck is mono-blue, as this is another deck that really doesn't deal with Thassa very well (or Master of Waves, for that matter).

The second copy of Jund Planeswalkers in the Top 8 had one of the most powerful M15 cards in it, as it ran a full four copies of Nissa, Worldwaker.

Yuuki Ichikawa

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Setting aside the absurd fact that this is Ichikawa's second Top 8 in four attempts, this is still a remarkable decklist. It's incredibly focused, running the full eight mana accelerators in Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid alongside four Xenagos, the Reveler and four Nissa, Worldwaker. While this is definitely an attrition deck like the other Jund Planeswalker deck, it is capable of a much more explosive start and has more games where it snowballs out of control. Nissa is just a very fast clock, and once she's animated a few lands, the game ends very quickly. It's also very funny that Planar Cleansing doesn't kill the lands she makes into 4/4s, as they still qualify as lands.

I still wouldn't want to play against Mono-Blue with this deck, even with four Mistcutter Hydras in the sideboard, but other than that the deck looks very solid. Nissa is doing something powerful and different than most cards in the format, and she fights against other removal-based decks very efficiently.

The two different archetypes I talked about today both try and accomplish the same thing: deal with the opponent's threats and build up overwhelming card advantage, even if they approach from very different angles. I myself lean toward drawing lots of cards, and would likely play the Sphere version of WU if I had an event this weekend, but my second choice would likely be Ichikawa's Jund deck. You can't really go wrong in Standard these days, as there are at least ten viable decks, more if you include all the variants, and as I've said many times, you should just pick the deck that speaks to you best (in my case, that's the deck with lots of Sphinx's Revelations).

LSV

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