Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Posted in Feature on May 26, 2005

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."

I. Introduction

If you listened to the PT Philadelphia Top 8 coverage, you may have picked up on a distinction that Randy Buehler made about constructed formats. Great deck designers tend to flourish in one of two types of formats, uncharted waters or the established format. Great designers for the Pro Tour itself can figure out decks for formats where there is no set metagame. They crash into the big show with decks designed for one tournament, to win that single big money event. They beat up on G/R decks with The Solution or take advantage of the fact that Affinity is under-prepared for, taking first place in Extended tournaments with good Standard decks.

Great deck designers tend to flourish in one of two types of formats…

A very different task is building decks for existing, established, formats. Why is it that Pierre Canali's Affinity was so great, virtually unbeatable, in Columbus, but his powerful Mirrodin Block artifact strategy did comparatively poorly in the Extended PTQs feeding Philadelphia? Pierre did well in Columbus via a combination of deck power and information imbalance. Affinity remained one of the fundamentally strongest strategies in the PTQs, but once players were prepared for the deck with their Energy Fluxes and Pulverizes, it no longer commanded the strength of surprise.

Personally, I have always found it easier to build for PTQ or Championship Season events because of the ability to accurately metagame against decks exactly as they will appear across the table. For the average reader, the process of building for established environments is also more relevant. After all, in order to get to the big show of the Pro Tour, you have to hack and slash your way through PTQs and local championships… The best way to do that in the constructed realm is to prepare yourself for the decks that will show up, figuring out how to beat each one with your weapon of choice.

II. Methodology

In the next section, I am going to present the gauntlet for pre-Saviors of Kamigawa Standard as I see it. A lot of players show up to their local stores or brawl across the kitchen table, going up against whatever their friends bring. This is a huge mistake if you want to build the best possible deck for an event like Regionals. If all you want to do is dominate Friday Night Magic, it is probably a good idea to watch what the players who win every week play and just figure out how to beat those players with those decks, but unless you plan to play against your same friends every round of a big tournament, it might not be the best idea to prepare yourself for Alan's Red Deck or Josh's Green rather than the decks that people will copy from the Internet.

When I test, I figure out my gauntlet ahead of time and play 10 game sets against each of the decks in the gauntlet, recording my records (5-5, 6-4, and so on) along the way. Over the course of the 60 or so games at the alpha stage, I will come to one of three conclusions:

  1. This deck is terrible
    Actually, it doesn't usually take 60 games to come to this conclusion. If your deck hits 2-8 and 3-7 over the course of 3-4 match-ups, it usually means that the deck is not worth trying to save (for a tournament deck anyway). I actually advocate going for the decks you think you will definitely beat and lose to first, because one will justify the other much more than hitting a lot of the 6-4 and 5-5 close match-ups to begin with.
  2. This card (mana base) is terrible
    Over the course of many games, you will figure out which cards are worst. Usually the bad cards are the ones that you added to differentiate your version from “everybody else's” way to build a certain deck. Additionally, you will usually find that your mana base needs tweaking. I am guessing that almost every reader who goes through the process of actually testing new decks against a gauntlet will find that he has too few lands. I play more lands than most players and I still need people like Brian David-Marshall and Seth Burn nudging one or two more basics into my decks on a regular basis.
  3. I better figure out how to sideboard
    If your deck can muster acceptable match-ups across the decks that you think will be the most popular, then figuring out how to sideboard against the decks that you aren't beating becomes an important process. Look at the decks in your gauntlet. What cards will they bring in against you? For example, if you are testing a Big Red deck against Gabriel Nassif's Mono-Blue deck, you can bet that the average Mono-Blue player will bring in Bribery and Spectral Shift against you in anticipation of your big creatures and probable Boils.

General notes:

  • It's best to beat the most popular deck. If I were testing for the Philadelphia Extended PTQs, I would count a 7-3 record against Goblins much more than I would favor a 7-3 against Affinity. Among aggressive decks with Aether Vial, Goblins was the more popular by a wide margin.
  • If you don't beat the most popular deck, you should beat essentially every other deck and have a plan to beat the best deck after boards. By the same token, if I beat another popular deck consistently in Game One, I tend to devote less priority to it in sideboarded games.

III. The Decks

Standard since the evisceration of Affinity left Tooth and Nail the default top deck. Mono-Blue made a nice impact at the Champs level, and has become the deck of choice for savvy players since the “real” best deck was removed. Big Red, the winner of the Mirrodin Block Pro Tour, has a fairly aggressive Ponza-esque descendent in Standard, but should after the Invitational be considered two distinct decks for testing purposes. The X-factor is in Green. I don't know if Gifts Ungiven as Gadiel Szleifer played it in Philadelphia can be successfully translated into Standard, but I do know that the shuffling-Sensei's Divining Top strategy will be sufficiently popular to warrant some crossover; I would therefore consider (essentially) “Mono”-Green and G5C decks worth testing. Lastly, I would test some sort of Death Cloud deck; I don't know if it actually matters if you test a Mono-Black or B/G deck; I would not bother testing against a Rat deck or any similarly strange concoctions not because I don't respect the Rats but because the likelihood of having to beat Nezumi Cutthroat is significantly less than the necessity of fighting Arc-Slogger.

I would prioritize the importance of match-ups in this order: Tooth and Nail, any Red Decks, Mono-Blue Control, then Mono-Green shuffling, with Death Cloud and G5C least important. All the decks I am recommending for test come from either the Philadelphia LCQ or Invitational.

Terry Soh (3-0)

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Tooth and Nail put three players into the Top 8 of the LCQ and was the most popular deck in that Standard tournament. Regardless of your personal opinion on whether or not to play decks relying on nine mana threats, Terry Soh's version of Tooth and Nail also went 3-0 at the Invitational and was the deck of choice for this year's champion. That makes it the single most important Standard deck to test for this environment.

Soh's version has the following unique features that should have attention paid to them in testing:

Kodama's Reach in addition to Sakura Tribe Elder:
Kodama's Reach helps offset Terry's fundamentally lower mana count while making his Sensei's Divining Tops more effective. Note that he plays neither Talismans nor Vine Trellises and therefore leans more on his Sakura-Tribe Elders in the early game.

Altered Top End Threats:
Terry has no Leonin Abunas + Platinum Angel combination and no Mephidross Vampire + Triskelion combo. He therefore can't imply a win with Tooth and Nail and has to win the old fashioned way. Life total is less important against Terry's deck than against other versions of Tooth because he also doesn't have a Darksteel Colossus; in the past, it was important to keep life at 12+ going into Tooth and Nail because of the possibility that Kiki-Jiki + Darksteel Colossus could spell instant death with a hasty 11.
That said, Terry has a second Sundering Titan. This lets him Tinker into double Sundering Titan facing a deck with removal or an adverse Kiki-Jiki. He can also hard cast the Titan into a Tooth and Nail or play out threats with more regularity after being hit with a Cranial Extraction.

Only Three Copies of Tooth and Nail:
An interesting choice, this gives Terry's deck less immediate topdeck power after setting up the UrzaTron.

Vine Trellis in the Sideboard:
Primarily a tool against decks with Slith Firewalker, these Walls will be important elements against decks designed to get the jump on Terry's less consistent early game.

Osyp Lebedowicz (3-0)

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Chris "StrWrsKid" McDaniel - Qualified

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It is important to play against two different Red Decks for the current Standard. Previous to the LCQ, it would probably have been okay to test only against a fast deck like Star Wars Kid's “French Red,” but the Big Red that Osyp used to post a 3-0 in the Invitational from last place actually preys on the rest of the decks in the current environment; ignoring it at this point would be silly.

The best incentive to actually playing one of the Red Decks is that they thrash Tooth and Nail. Star Wars Kid's deck is close to 90% in Game One against an UrzaTron deck, and though Osyp's deck has a less dramatic percentage, I wouldn't want to be on the Tooth and Nail side in a tournament match. Star Wars Kid's deck uses Slith Firewalker for an early advantage and Vulshok Sorcerer to ping Eternal Witnesses and Sakura-Tribe Elders out of the way while the Firewalker sticks, while Osyp's deck plays a game built around four- and five-point burn spells that allow it to consistently win games even when Tooth and Nail resolves.

French Red tests very well, but I personally dislike it because the mana is so inconsistent; the deck plays 50% mana sources, meaning it has to rely a great deal on whatever single threat it draws. It has many explosive openings based on Chrome Mox but also has problems drawing Chrome Mox late or just not drawing enough land (only 22/60 with five-drops).

I think Osyp's deck is actually the best deck in Standard, but I designed it, so take that comment with a grain of salt. The fundamental difference between this deck and every other deck in the format is that it plays a non-interactive game based on burn spells, allowing it to successfully race beatdown decks and also ignore the defensive measures in control decks. Because a deck like Beacon Green or even Slith Firewalker Red will deal a lot of damage early, the Big Red deck can get one or two free buybacks with the Pulse of the Forge… sufficient mana will then quickly translate into a dead opponent. The absolute best part of the main deck is its use of Sensei's Divining Top; Red Decks in general have problems with draw consistency from early game to mid-game, but Sensei's Divining Top combined with Wayfarer's Bauble, Solemn Simulacrum, Magma Jet, and Beacon of Destruction keep the lands flowing and burn spells ready when needed. You can also activate the Top and respond by popping it with a Shrapnel Blast… but still draw a card!

Star Wars Kid only has the Goblin Charbelcher because he couldn't find a fourth Boil. Slith Firewalker Red Decks without Boil are doing poorly against prepared Mono-Blue decks, and even with a full compliment of Boils, I don't like aggressive Red in the match-up due to Spectral Shift; contrast the Big Red deck. The Big Red is actually terrible against Mono-Blue Control in Game One. However, after boards, Mono-Blue can't actually win. Worse than that, there is no way for it to sideboard or play that allows it to stay competitive. Big Red sides out all eight guys for Boseiju, Fireball, and land destruction. The only thing that allows Mono-Blue to fight Boseiju is either its own Boseiju or Temporal Adept, and neither of those cards is relevant against this sideboard plan. Factor in wasted space for siding in Bribery and Spectral Shift (cards that do nothing) and leaving in Vedalken Shackles, and the match-up is a mess for blue. Even if blue sides correctly, it has no way to fight the Red Deck's plan in the long game, no way to keep Boseiju + Beacon of Destruction from eventually dealing 20.

Gabriel Nassif (3-0)

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Thieving Magpie
Even if he hadn't posted a 3-0 in the Invitational, I would have selected Nassif's deck for this gauntlet. Nassif played a similar build to second place at this year's Paris Regionals. His deck differs from earlier versions of Mono-Blue Control in its use of four Thieving Magpies as the primary card drawing and exploitation of main-deck Bribery. Bribery makes Nassif's matchup against Tooth and Nail much friendlier in Game One (but note how Soh's use of a second Sundering Titan and no Darksteel Colossus takes a lot of oomph out of this strategy).

After boards, Mono-Blue gets Temporal Adept, which is the absolute best card against Tooth and Nail, disassembling the UrzaTron before it ever comes online and keeping Boseiju from ever mattering. The Adept is effective in lots of other match-ups, especially when the opponent doesn't side right, but if all it does is ensure the Tooth match-up, that is plenty.

Threads of Disloyalty is a powerful tool against Slith Firewalker, and combined with Temporal Adept and Vedalken Shackles, can make decks like White Weenie look positively silly.

Nassif's deck plays both Chrome Mox and Wayfarer's Bauble, which promotes early game development and also makes Thirst for Knowledge better (get rid of that extra Mox). All of that said, Nassif's deck has less permission than the typical deck of this type and can be test-spelled out, especially by a Green deck capable of playing more than one threat per turn.

Brett Blackman - Qualified

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Beacon of Creation
Beacon Green is the last of the main decks I would concentrate on testing against if I were building a deck for this format. It is straightforward in the sense that it has a lot of powerful cards whose interactions are not mysterious… but was surprisingly absent at the Invitational.

Blackman can swarm with either Beacon of Creation or Meloku the Clouded Mirror, but he has a very good curve before hitting the high end. He can crash with Viridian Zealot like any old two drop and has Iwamori, a relatively low risk Blastoderm, as his threat on four (probably his turn three) before the board is already spread.

Blackman's Tops are pretty good as he has Sakura-Tribe Elder and Wood Elves, as well as a persistent shuffler in Beacon of Creation.

After boards, this deck is potentially the most dangerous as it has strategy breaking sideboard cards for every main archetype. Against Blue, Blackman has Troll Ascetics and extra Zealots; Blue is weak against early beatdown, and both these cheap creatures are effective against Vedalken Shackles. Agaisnt Red, he has Ascetics carrying Swords; against Tooth and Nail, he supplements Plow Under with Cranial Extraction.

Though none of the Pros in the Invitational chose Beacon Green, I consider this a deck to watch, one of the best decks in the format to play, and certainly an important deck to test against when building your own decks.

Kenta Hiroki - So Close

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Death Cloud
When I was working on the Big Red deck, I tested against a Mono-Black deck from French Regionals with Yukora the Prisoner as my Death Cloud deck, but Hiroki's “So Close” deck from the LCQ breaks the relevant Death Cloud symmetries quite well, so I've switched to it.

The important things to keep in mind when building a Death Cloud deck are how to correctly manage resources, primarily lands, and the Green splash helps a Black deck do this with more card economy than Chrome Mox and Guardian Idol. Additionally, a Green deck gives you access to better threats.

Hiroki's deck can go Birds of Paradise into Troll Ascetic, which is close to a game win against a Mono-Blue Control deck in Game One. Plow Under can keep the UrzaTron off the board, but really needs Eternal Witness in order to keep the opponent from recovering in time to go off with Tooth and Nail anyway. Red Decks are naturally strong against Death Cloud decks, and especially the Big Red deck Osyp played has all kinds of resource-imbalancing elements like Solemn Simulacrum, Molten Rain, and the one drop artifacts that really make it annoying to be the Death Cloud player; that said, being Green gives you options like Troll Ascetic and Plow Under, or even big bodies like Molder Slug, that actually matter to a Red Deck. The best reason to choose a deck like Hiroki's is that it matches good card with good card and doesn't fall prey to any one spoiler automatically… Against a deck like Blackman's, Echoing Decay can fight Beacon of Creation and green creatures can mash into one another while Death Cloud comes online while the Slugs eat equipment.

If the rest of this article didn't already imply the sentiment, this is a match-up that requires testing.

David Sharfman - Qualified

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Etched OracleNot just for Prismatic!

During the LCQ, I heard rumors of a deck that used Trinket Mage for the express purpose of getting its one Sensei's Divining Top… This is that deck, and one that proudly claimed a Philadelphia PT slot.

While Brett Blackman's deck has some G5C elements, it's really a Mono-Green deck with some Meloku help… Sharfman's deck is a real G5C in the tradition of Regionals 1997. Sharfman really goes for the best elements of every color… He's got Green mana acceleration, blue for actual counters, Red for Fireball and land destruction, white for damage prevention, and a legitimate Sunburst sub-theme. The only thing missing is black for Cranial Extraction… but I guess Sharfman's deck is already spreading certain deck elements pretty thin.

Sharfman's deck can both handle basically any sort of threat between main and side… and doesn't specialize in any one thing. He doesn't have the flamethrower or beatdown power of either of the Red Decks, has less than half of Nassif's counters, and nowhere near Blackman's token generation ability… But he's also the only deck with main-deck Naturalize; even if he doesn't have Tooth and Nail's raw power, his Etched Oracles have got to look pretty good as either beaters or card drawing.

I'd hate playing against this deck just because I'd have no clue what card to put my opponent on, and less of an idea what I should be doing myself. If you like decks with a lot of surprise value, testing against Sharfman's deck will probably be rewarding… not only will you get some valuable G5C testing in, you might pick up some ideas about what you can cram into a 60 card deck if you just shave that third Eternal Witness and third Kodama's Reach.

Conversely, I wouldn't run this version of G5C:

Kai Budde (1-2)

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Some awfully good players ran this deck at the Invitational and the best record any of them posted was a 1-2. Though it theoretically has a ton of raw power, testing similar decks to this one show a bit of a deficiency against pressure and a surprising glass jaw to cards like Molten Rain. Getting the mana right is hard enough even with Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach, but a well placed land destruction card will keep the Sunburst theme on the shelf, permanently stranding cards like All Suns' Dawn and Bringer of the Black Dawn.

Saviors of Kamigawa is going to throw a huge monkeywrench in the metagame, but these are the decks that I would test against up until then. In many cases, especially the Soh, Blackman, and Nassif decks, they are also the backbone of the format that will eventually be this summer's Championship Season. Study and Grow Strong… But don't forget: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

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