Almost Consensus... And the Weird Stuff

Posted in Top Decks on April 14, 2011

By Mike Flores

It's been a while since we could say something like this, but the Top 8 of Grand Prix Dallas gives us a pretty clear idea of the best cards in Standard:

Mana Leak was also popular with 28 copies... and no, that wasn't seven four-ofs. The four Blue-Red-Green decks all played four copies and the four White-Blue decks all played three copies.

With half the decks playing four copies each of Squadron Hawk and Stoneforge Mystic, and half playing Lotus Cobra and Explore on the two, we had 16 of each of those cards.

Standard seems to be making a statement, and not one that I think that most tournament sideline fans might have expected.

So what is different about this format compared to so many others that have fallen under the pall of some kind of dominant deck like Jund or Faeries or, given our proximity to some-kind-of-Mirrodin, Ravager Affinity?

Put another way, shouldn't there be lines and lines of players in the streets, holding up signs to "Ban Preordain!"?

The advent of planeswalkers has no doubt changed the tournament landscape. Can you remember a time when Garruk Wildspeaker was considered the best planeswalker in Standard, or a slightly later time when Ajani Goldmane was? In neither case was either card thought of as the best card overall, or remotely worthy of banning.

Jump to today... Really, what's the difference?

There have always been dominating cards (well, except maybe at the height of Ravnica block, when the ideal of the Tier Two metagame really kind of gave us hundreds and hundreds of cards at similar power levels). I think that what is different and quite wonderful about this format is that, while you have a card like Preordain that can go into, ahem, every deck in the Top 8 as a four-of, the decks do such wildly different things that the best of the blue are there as wonderful facilitators rather than their analogues from Standard boogeymen past.

Think back a moment, before the printing of Sword of Feast and Famine. What were the dominating Preordain or Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks of periods (just) past? What if we just looked at some of the black-blue Preordain / Mana Leak decks of the past six or seven months?

  • Nick Spagnolo's Immortality.dec
  • Gerry Thompson's Mimic Vat
  • Guillaume Matignon's World Champion Blue-Black Control
  • Brian Kibler's Blue-Black Infect

Over the course of some very few months, we saw the once-unknown Nick Spagnolo blast his way onto the tournament scene, first stealing a Pro Tour qualification from our own Jacob Van Lunen (playing the Pyromancer Ascension deck that would be so instrumental for Matignon), then go on a minor leagues tear to rival Bertoncini or Thompson. Nick brought us our initial conception of Blue-Black Control.

Nick Spagnolo's Blue-Black Control

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Look at this deck a moment.

What does it do?

What are its defining plans?

At least superficially, Nick's deck is a Jace deck. It really, really wants to win the Jace war. Look at all those Jaces! He is preempting the opposing four; he is sculpting minds. In the hands of Thompson in the same sub-era, this deck would probably be playing Jace's Intuition as well.

But that's not really what Nick's deck is about.

He beat my Pyromancer Ascensions, for instance, with a solo main-deck Memoricide; at the time, Primeval Titan decks were dominating the format, and Nick built his deck with a turn-two Everflowing Chalice so that he could spring the turn-three Memoricide to preempt Titan shenanigans. And while the fires of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle might not be completely out just because a kid ran out the modern-day Cranial Extraction, buying a lot of time was obviously valuable. Nick went on to win the State Championships.

But that's not even what is interesting about Spagnolo's deck.

Don't stop at the Everflowing Chalices! This is a deck with crossover tuning. He made Everflowing Chalice an essential part of his plan, and saw the valuable intersection at Trinket and Mage. So Big Trinks gave him a singleton Brittle Effigy... but what's more, a solo Elixir of Immortality.

This is a deck with some seriously unique positioning propositions in the format. It can go infinite; it can win an attrition war against almost any foe. Fast enough to compete with Big Green—and keep Spagnolo in Open finishes for some months—Nick's blue-black deck was light years ahead of other blue decks at the time.

Grave Titan is here, but Nick said it was mostly there to fight Jace. Getting a Frost Titan bounced did nothing but leech two mana from the other guy; at least with Grave Titan, he had some leftovers to brawl with the 'walker. But his preferred finisher was of course the mighty Frost Titan.

Gerry Thompson, noted deck tuner, took his own look at Blue-Black Control.

Gerry Thompson's Blue-Black Control

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What weird cards!

I mean yes, Gerry played four copies of Preordain like a good blue mage, but his other choices were wildly afield of what we'd expect—especially considering Spagnolo's pedigree early in the season—and have to be considered odd.Mimic Vat? What's up with that? Abyssal Persecutor? Over Frost Titan?

Gerry's deck didn't get a lot of high-level tournament play, but it was tested extensively by a fair number of top players, and his innovations were influential... just not the ones that might seem most obvious.

Though he kept Everflowing Chalice, Gerry moved from Nick's Trinket Mages to the less religious Sea Gate Oracle (as a four-of!), and this stuck.

Look at the subgames Gerry forces you to play.

What happens when he has a Mimic Vat out? Don't you have to start playing a bit differently? Aren't we playing a bit of a different game than regular Magic: The Gathering here? A well-placed Doom Blade can turn that Mimic Vat into something spectacular... and you really have to start thinking about whether you really want to send your Primeval Titan into the waiting wings on an Abyssal Persecutor.

And speaking of Abyssal Persecutor... What kind of subgame is this? Have you ever been in the spot where you can't afford to kill the opponent's insane 6/6 flying creature because it is the only thing keeping you alive? What about the elegance of Gerry's removal choices with Abyssal Persecutor in mind? Of course he can pick up his own with Jace, the Mind Sculptor; but Consuming Vapors? How cool is that? What's yours is mine; what's mine is... well, also mine.

Guillaume Matignon's Blue-Black Control

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By the World Championships, everything had changed once again.

Anyone who was anyone had added the 26th land—a Tectonic Edge—and Spreading Seas, once a contender for #1 card in Standard (and often considered the #1 blue card, despite competition from Jace), was back in all the successful lists as a Valakut-breaker.

Our World Champion borrowed at least half of Gerry's Sea Gate Oracles, but none of the rest of his fancy add-ons, instead going with a much more straightforward list including Inquisition of Kozilek and a solo Cancel.

It is probably fair to say that this was a deck with essentially no nuance. There were no infinite Trinket Mage loops, nor Vengevine-munching Mimic Vats. All it was was business; but business, it got right.

Now to dial it to the present day, just for extremes in positioning, let's go straight to Brian Kibler's Top 8 deck from a recent Open Series event:

Brian Kibler's Blue-Black Infect

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Like a good blue mage, Kibler has his four Preordains. And like many of the blue-black decks discussed above, he has a couple of copies of Jace Beleren.

But what's missing?

Inquisition of Kozilek, sure.

Mana Leak (a four-of in each and every one of the pre-Mirrodin Besieged blue-black decks), check. Four-of, of course.

But Jace, the Mind Sculptor? Nary a mention!

What about the nuance of this deck? Can you imagine the slow, sickening crawl that begins with a turn-two strike from an Inkmoth Nexus, festering over the course of maybe nine or ten turns as a Contagion Clasp grinds away at your not-life total?

How about playing a deck like Boros—generally considered solid against control—but sitting back helpless against the dangerous Phyrexian Crusader?

And most of all, what about Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon? Why, now, do we have to prepare for and play against blue and black like they are packing Rorix Bladewing?

Despite 32 Preordains and 32 big Jaces in a Grand Prix Top 8, many players don't see this format as the least bit oppressive. Why? Because without leaving the colors of black and blue we have four decks so different from one another, we might as well be talking about Red Deck Wins and White-Blue Control.

Now speaking of White-Blue Control, remember how it was on-again, and off-again extinct? How we were all so shocked when Kyle Sanchez brought back Wall of Omens to take down the event by disrupting Valakut with Spell Pierces, or how Kurt Speiss tried the first Contagion Clasp alongside Luminarch Ascension?

I thought it was great when Ben Stark, Tom Martell, and crew dominated Pro Tour Paris with their deck! The dawn of Caw-Blade was about marrying bits and pieces of the White-Blue Control shell with the mighty Stoneforge Mystic (catapulting the latter to Top 10 position for the first time ever), catalyst being Sword of Feast and Famine as a definite equipment upgrade.

Caw-Blade is a "White-Blue Control" deck like Slivers is.

Caw-Blade makes its plays and tells you what's what. It's a threat deck. A control killer. It's so much different from those blue-black decks (above) that the fact that they have Jace, Mana Leak, and Preordain in common makes them only superficially similar.

And how about Blue-Red-Green, a.k.a. RUG?

If there is one thing you can say about the Dallas Top 8 it is that some of the best RUG players in the world succeeded: Michael Jacob, the godfather of RUG from way back in Block Constructed; Alex Bertoncini, RUG's constant standard bearer in the Open Series; Owen Turtenwald, who racked up yet another impressive Grand Prix finish.

Blue-Red-Green is a deck that could play with longtime darling Frost Titan or the consensus best of the Titans, Primeval Titan... but chooses instead to play all four Inferno Titans! Its auxiliary threats go up and down. At seven, Avenger of Zendikar, a landfall weapon that can lean against the strategy's plentiful Misty Rainforests and Scalding Tarns to threaten the win quickly.

A cool card that was played as either a two-of or three-of in all the RUG decks was Precursor Golem.

With a second-turn Lotus Cobra, you can play Precursor Golem for 9 power on the third turn with a Misty Rainforest or Scalding Tarn. Not only does this creature provide huge damage potential for its mana—almost two-to-one—it is also hard to deal with. With most black removal moving from Doom Blade to Go for the Throat and the dominant deck (Caw-Blade) largely bereft of spot removal spells, Precursor Golem looks pretty good.

Michael Jacob, innovator of the archetype, had a little Precursor Golem tech waiting, though: Twisted Image. That card is like an Ancestral Recall when pointed at a Golem! It has also got other applications, like a two-for-one against Overgrown Battlement or Birds of Paradise.

Michael Jacob's Blue-Red-Green

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Just as every Blue-Red-Green player poured four Inferno Titans into his list, surprisingly, every Caw-Blade player in the Top 8 ran a main-deck Mortarpod! The other details were a bit different, but the universality of this living weapon decision is probably something you want to keep in mind if you are going to go white-blue in the near future.

David Shiels's White-Blue Caw-Blade

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The Dallas winner added a bit of spice to his mana base via an Inkmoth Nexus. David ran two copies of extra Equipment in his sideboard (the Paris main deck options of one Sylvok Lifestaff and an extra Sword of Feast and Famine); and could match other players' Equipment with Volition Reins.

Korey McDuffie's Caw-Blade

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Korey ran two copies of Into the Roil in his main deck. At times considered the top Blue instant in Standard, this one is a brutal answer to Precursor Golem.

Austin Bursavich's Caw-Blade

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Squadron Hawk shows us all that 1/1 flyers are good for white, and Austin upped the number of 1/1 flyers with Emeria Angel. An answer to Vengevine as well as a source of his own swarm, Emeria Angel is aces with Mortarpod.

Josh Utter-Leyton's Caw-Blade

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The US National Champion rounds out the Caw-Blade players with a main-deck Sun Titan. One of the most unbeatable cards in the White-Blue mirror, Sun Titan can retrieve Sword of Feast and Famine once it has been destroyed by Divine Offering, or re-buy Jace Beleren (the only three-mana planeswalker) indefinitely, making for a huge advantage in the mirror match's Jace war.

    National Qualifiers

National Qualifiers start this weekend in the US, and the format is Standard! It will be interesting to see how the successfully qualifying players around the country, and around the world, react to the dominance of Preordain and Jace, the Mind Sculptor in Dallas. Good luck, wherever you battle!

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