50/50 and the Perfect Foil

Posted in Top Decks on November 3, 2011

By Mike Flores

Once upon a time there was a deck called Caw-Blade.

Caw-Blade erupted onto the scene in a flurry of Feast, Famine, feathers, and finishes. At Pro Tour Paris, Caw-Blade scratched a line in the sand with the crooked claw of the Squadron Hawk, mayhap the edge of a newly minted black-green Sword; haves on one side, everyone else on the other.

For fans of the game, for those who believe and glory in the notion that the victory is in the preparation, Caw-Blade's victory went far beyond the long awaited crowning of Ben Stark (long considered one of the game's very best) and Brad Nelson's using the deck to cement his Player of the Year title... If there were any sour notes to this Pro Tour, it was simply that so many Caw-Blade players—all doing so well—bumped up against each other in the late rounds and even Top 8.

Caw-Blade wasn't merely the best deck of its debut Pro Tour (there is literally one of those for every Pro Tour), but a very special deck; so special that some of the greatest minds and strategists in the history of the game were willing to anoint it THE greatest Standard deck of all time (even though none of those made it).

But to others, Caw-Blade had risen to the point of villainy. Rather than focusing on an appreciation for how rewarding Caw-Blade was to superb play, many saw the three-strong squad of, ahem, Squadron Hawk, Stoneforge Mystic, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a kind of Magical Miami Heat. Great individual competitors, sure... but it was like the entire world was cheering against them come the finals.

With tournament attendance suffering, bannings came and rotations went.

First the banning of Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor (neither of which were actually the "Caw" or the "Blade" from which the deck drew its name); then finally the rotation of Squadron Hawk. In the middle, Caw-Blade—again, both the "Caw" and the "Blade" had been left intact—dominated Standard tournaments, continuing to perform and place in various National Championships, Open events, etc.

At the most recent StarCityGames.com Open event, the newest inheritor to Caw-Blade rose up to challenge the metagame, seemingly a perfect foil to this format of Blue-Black Control decks and the "Deck to Beat": Wolf Run (Green / Gruul / Ramp), featuring Primeval Titan and a Kessig Wolf Run / Inkmoth Nexus endgame.

Adam Boyd's White-Blue Blade

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  • Sword of Feast and Famine – Makes it very difficult for Wolf Run to block; shuts off black removal and makes any creature into a legitimate threat against control.
  • Spellskite – A magnet protecting key creatures from removal; also a superb foil to the card Kessig Wolf Run and a fine Sword-bearer.
  • Mirran Crusader – Obviously awesome against green (wannabe) blockers and black removal.
  • Moorland Haunt – Attrition trump for decks that can actually remove threats.
  • Flashfreeze – Just fast enough to stop a Dungrove Elder (at least most of the time), and flexible enough to stop Garruk or a Primeval Titan.

The hero... then villain... and now, the perfect foil?


It's arguable that this format, which started on Red Deck, then exploded into a Wolf Run arms race (innovation followed by Dungrove Elders followed by...?) has moved on yet again!

Consider this Top 8 from the most recent Grand Prix Hiroshima:

No Blue-Black Control (sure there were a couple of Esper-ish decks), but not a Wolf Run deck in sight either!

    Township Tokens

Martin Juza's Township Tokens

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Planeswalker (3)
3 Elspeth Tirel
Sorcery (3)
3 Overrun
Artifact (2)
2 Mortarpod
Enchantment (3)
3 Oblivion Ring
Other (3)
3 Garruk Relentless++Garruk, the Veil-Cursed
60 Cards

This style of green-white deck is a bit mid-range-y and a bit bomb-tacular. The mighty Juza played a mix of—as Aaron Forsythe used to say—"mana and bombs." Juza ran eight one-drop accelerators including the new Avacyn's Pilgrim to help power out threes on two and fast fives.

Avacyn's Pilgrim | Art by Jana Schirmer amp; Johannes Voss

Aside: Why is Avacyn's Pilgrim better than Llanowar Elves in Green-White?

When you have a Llanowar Elves on turn one, there is a pretty clear indication you have access to green mana (you know, like a Forest). When you want to hit a turn-two white three-drop (for example a Blade Splicer), Avacyn's Pilgrim is going to be more helpful than "another" green source. A Dungrove Elder-dodging Mirran Crusader? You need two white... so if you started on Forest, Llanowar Elves is basically never going to get you there on the second turn.

That's why Birds of Paradise is there in this offensive deck over the Alpha parallel that actually has power, and why the new version gets the nod over the original.

End aside.

In addition to Mirran Crusader, which is great in-metagame (and an extra-good beneficiary of any kind of pump capabilities), most of the threats in this deck are token producers in addition to just being powerful. Garruk Relentless, Elspeth Tirel, Geist-Honored Monk... These threats work well with Gavony Township and can help end games quickly via Overrun.

    White-Blue Humans

Rin Satou's White-Blue Humans

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Satou played Counter-Sliver-ish style, with fast threats starting on Champion of the Parish and Gideon's Lawkeeper, capable of holding the lead with Mana Leak. Angelic Destiny and Sword of Feast and Famine make lots of guys big and heavy-hitting, but slapping that four-mana enchantment on Geist of Saint Traft is just a monster... Lethal in the air in two swings.

Satou's sideboard included the full four-pack of Sword of War and Peace, which can humiliate Red Decks when set up with hard-to-target creatures and make racing difficult-to-impossible for other white creature decks.

Takahiro Shiraki's White-Blue Humans

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Shiraki played a more swarming, offensive White-Blue Humans deck: no Swords, no counterspells, way more fast drops to seize the initiative.

Shiraki ran Leonin Arbiter in his sideboard, something annoying for Rampant Growth, Primeval Titan, and so on. Not an earth-shattering and unconditional winner, but extremely low cost for a deck that wants to play down a two anyway.

Hiroshi Onizuka's White-Blue Humans

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Onizuka played "both" standard Swords and Mana Leak and even Midnight Haunting! He did so at the cost of the Geist of Saint Traft and Angelic Destiny boasted by most other White-Blue Humans decks (including the other two played in this Top 8).

Three White-Blue Humans decks, all of them starting on Champion of the Parish and leaning on Honor of the Pure; some with Mana Leak, some with Swords, some with a difficult-to-handle Ghost and the best "enchant creature" Aura since Eldrazi Conscription. Similar strategies, similar incentives, but very easy to misread from the other side of the table.

Champion of the Parish | Art by Svetlin Velinov

What happens when you side im Phantasmal Image against Onizuka? Ancient Grudge against Shiraki? Two of these decks can punish you for trying to tap out for a Day of Judgment on turn four, one won't.

    Birthing Pod

Kouichi Tanaka's Birthing Pod

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Sideboard (15)
2 Brindle Boar 1 Fiend Hunter 2 Thrun, the Last Troll 1 Oblivion Ring 1 Sylvok Replica 1 Stonehorn Dignitary 1 Sunblast Angel 2 Flashfreeze 2 Day of Judgment 2 Garruk Relentless++Garruk, the Veil-Cursed

Tanaka ushered one of the most dominant cards from the last Standard format into the world of Innistrad with a Bant-flavored midrange creature list.

Birthing Pod has been heralded as "basically Jace" by some of the smartest players in Magic (costs three or four mana, basically draws you an extra card every turn, typically beats the opponent via an oppressive grinding Trish rather than one big and easily identified Super Arts)... but it is surely a Jace with a catch. You have to be creature heavy, so if you go Pod, you probably can't go Snapcaster Mage (in fact, Tanaka's list had not one instant or sorcery main).

The Pod sequence:

7 total Avacyn's Pilgrim and Birds of Paradise:Avacyn's Pilgrim gets the four-of nod over Birds of Paradise here, presumably due to the point of power. Both cards help accelerate Tanaka's deck to third-turn Birthing Pod, which starts lining up the dominoes.

3 Phantasmal Image:Phantasmal Image costs two, allowing the deck to ramp up from a one drop, but borrows the converted mana cost of whatever it copies. That lets Tanaka cheat into a higher point on the curve via successive Birthing Pod activations (i.e. Birds of Paradise into Phantasmal Image copying Inferno Titan (ka-pow!) into Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite). Phantasmal Image is just great because of cards like Geist of Saint Traft and Thrun, the Last Troll in the format, whether or not it is big cheats (see also, Hero's Demise).

3 Viridian Emissary: A ramp spell tailor made for Birthing Pod. Great defense against beatdown on turn two, freebie acceleration when combined with Birthing Pod to set up creatures like...

Skaab Ruinator: You can use your graveyard-filling superpowers to cast this creature, or ramp into it via the 'Pod to dodge around the drawback or ignore it altogether.

The Big Guys: Tanaka played all kinds of heavy finishers (Frost Titan, Sun Titan), but Wurmcoil Engine is the perfect setup in a deck like this because it has an ability when it dies; ditto on Archon of Justice. Of course the only thing you can ramp into at the six point is Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite; which is basically "it" for a lot of decks (Mono-Black Infect's 1/1s can't easily survive, for instance).

Pod may be the deck in the format with the most potential decisions, and the card Birthing Pod itself has a pretty big payout.

    Solar Flare

Solar Flare (or Neo-Flare), or the inheritors of Esper, was one of the strategies most set up to be popular from the opening bell of Innistrad Standard. Cards like Forbidden Alchemy, Liliana of the Veil, and Unburial Rites just "go together" while implying a particular triad of colors.

Flare can go a couple of ways from Sun Titans and Phantasmal Images (wow) to medium control with half a dozen counterspells. Some are more removal heavy and some are more concerned with landing bombs. All of them are big and powerful and have some significant incentives at the high end.

Akira Asahara's Solar Flare

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Top 8 superstar Asahara played basically a Blue-Black Control deck, splashing for Day of Judgment, a Sun Titan, some Oblivion Rings, and the flashback on Unburial Rites (if that makes any sense).

Akira played eight permission spells and heavy (though not full) Snapcaster Mages, and his big spell was the control-promoting Consecrated Sphinx.

Asahara ran a different angle on the Wolf Run-dominated format for Flare, bringing in Mirran Crusader after sideboarding! Ka-pow! Take that, Dungrove Elder!

    Red Deck Wins

Kouichi Tashiro's Red Deck Wins

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Planeswalker (2)
2 Koth of the Hammer
Artifact (4)
4 Shrine of Burning Rage
Land (22)
22 Mountain
Other (4)
4 Reckless Waif++Merciless Predator
60 Cards

Tashiro's build has a variety of one-drops—Grim Lavamancer and Reckless Waif / Merciless Predator in addition to the essentially ubiquitous Stromkirk Noble—setting up Stormblood Berserker on turn two.

This version has a wide variety of spells, from Galvanic Blast to Koth of the Hammer; room is made by going 3-of on some.

    Tempered Steel

Naoki Obayashi's Tempered Steel

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Though it looks like one of the zillions of Hawkward / Tempered Steel decks we have examined over the past few months, I just wanted to point out one and a half things.

The one: Mutagenic Growth.

This deck has it.

The half? Mox Opal! Obayashi can actually tap it for green! Save a guy from a removal spell, kill you a turn early without warning, even turn off half of Timely Reinforcements... Mutagenic Growth is a cool little wrinkle that can mix up a match-up.

    The Other Half

As this is Modern Week, I thought I would throw out a half a dozen reasons why our, ahem, most modern of formats should be so gosh darn lovable:

  1. Everything old is new again. Have we seen Storm combo decks? What about Pyromancer Ascension decks? Modern is a place where these different kinds of combo decks can come together in new and different (and land-light) ways; Modern is a format where vicious jungle cats and canines lie down together; you know, in the same deck.
  2. Everything new... is still there, and quite fresh. The most recent PT? Won with essentially a Standard combination (or what would have passed for one fifteen minutes ago). And for a format of umpteen thousand cards and so many viable combinations of cards... there is just something both pleasant and egalitarian about that.
  3. Ramp;D has shown a willingness to ban problem cards. This has been the promise of envelope-pushing advocates for as long as I've been playing, but with Modern, we see it in action for reals for the first time. Blazing Shoal? Banning it seems silly in the abstract, but Inkmoth Nexus looked a little too good on turn two. Green Sun's Zenith? The Dryad Arbor // Knight of the Reliquary split card had the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast, but the format is looking for the flexibility only of a talented high school gymnast. Again, just a little too good. Ramp;D really seems to know what kind of a format they want Modern to be, and are crafting their decisions to realize that end.
  4. Successful Zoo decks slip into the control role via Bant Charm or Unified Will. Cool, actually true, and about as probable as a format with viable Through the Breach, Birthing Pod, straight beatdown, Splinter Twin, and a half a dozen different combo decks all existing simultaneously (with, you know, Bant Charm / Unified Will Zoo decks).
  5. Wild Nacatl has been anointed as the go-to best card (whether we've quite gotten there or not) ... and isn't that something?
  6. Bitterblossom is banned, and it looks like it's staying that way! (Bitterblossom is my least favorite Magic card of all time.)

Firestarter: What do you find most lovable about Modern?

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