Before this year's Regional Championships, about the same time I wrote last week's Regionals preview article, I bet my good friend Jon Becker that more than half the decks claiming places at the 2009 US National Championship would feature both Spectral Procession and Windbrisk Heights. That's how confident I was in the popularity of what we talked about as the best strategy, featuring the format's best card. An aggressive bet, I know! The cagey Becker accepted my bet based on the absence of any such dominance of a single strategy since at least the days of Tooth and Nail.
Now at the time of this writing we have not anywhere enough information to see who will win, but one thing that I can promise you is that half of the archetypes described in this article will feature the combination of Spectral Procession and Windbrisk Heights, and the other half a way to combat that most popular of strategies that you may not have seen just yet... Or put another way, the deck, and the anti-deck.
- The Deck: Green-White Tokens
I was overjoyed to learn that my friend Phil Napoli—the kind of a guy who will run back to his car to grab a pal a desperately needed copy of Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund—was able to qualify for U.S. Nationals with his green-white deck. But here's the cool / interesting / noteworthy thing (beyond the qualification) ... Phil—and a slew of solid New York and New Jersey players packing green-white—"devolved" their green-white builds backwards to pre–Alara Reborn levels of technology. No Qasali Pridemage. No Dauntless Escort.
According to Phil, the Steward is superior to the Pridemage due to the tempo advantage, specifically in the mirror or against Black-White Tokens. The first player to hit the key cards (most importantly Ajani Goldmane) tends to win. Playing the Steward over the sexy new Pridemage allows you to leverage the mana boost to both play the key cards first and follow up with bigger drops. On balance, Qasali Pridemage can be awkward, mana-wise. The new card allows you to kill Bitterblossom or Glorious Anthem (albeit while sacrificing mana), whereas playing both Noble Hierarch and Steward of Valeron afforded Phil two turn-four kills over the day (turn-three Cloudgoat Ranger, turn-four Overrun). One of the subtle advantages of the tried-and-true Steward is its ability to both race and tap for mana in the same turn, an effective new feature among mana-producing creatures.
Top Decks: Why did you play the green-white deck? Weren't you working with Osyp on Cascade?
Phil Napoli: Yes, Osyp and I worked on Cascade together. We may have abandoned it prematurely because we were nervous about Anathemancer. You may see us playing it at the PTQs now that we understand the format better.
TD: Why this version versus Black-White Tokens?
PN: I feel you have two advantages. First, you can "steal the play" back from them [when you lose the flip] with Noble Hierarch. In general, the tempo of the format dictates that the first player to Ajani Goldmane wins; a Wrath will not do it (the other player will be the first to re-play creatures and activate Ajani again). Secondly, Overrun steals the game from any position against them.
TD: What are the good and bad matchups? What is the big incentive to play this deck?
PN: I wasn't sure going into the format, but I tested with Chad Kastel and he beat me with every deck I was playing. I think Dave Irvine and Chad hit on a lot of stuff correctly RE: the sideboard. Hallowed Burial was very good against persist. I didn't feel the deck had a crushing matchup ... but because of the power level and speed (read: Steward of Valeron), it could beat any deck in the format.
TD: Did you think about the Fog deck?
PN: I would have played Fog in a heartbeat but didn't have the choice. A proper build could be very good in this metagame.
PN: I am definitely convinced that Ajani is the key card in the deck and to not maximize your chance at the best draw is to handicap yourself. Garruk was there as Overruns 2-4 and to recover from the midrange decks that have slowed themselves down by running main-deck Wrath of God.
Phil's MVP on the day was Overrun.
Every tournament winner has some nice stories. Here's one of Phil's:
"I won one round by playing only two spells from my hand. I played Hallowed Burial against a persist player (which was spell #1). Then I played Cloudgoat Ranger. My attack qualified me for Windbrisk Heights, which in this case meant Overrun. He died to his own Bitterblossom."
Though Phil qualified with the above list, he suggests swapping out the main-deck Martial Coup for a Mutavault, plus adding Gleeful Sabotage to the sideboard (presumably for the Howling Mines in the Fog deck).
Phil didn't play Knight of the Reliquary, but a fair number of notable players running green-white at the Edison Regionals (such as Josh Ravitz) did. So why play that particular three-drop over the heavily featured new 3/3 for three? Simple:
Knight of the Reliquary is actually potentially bigger than not just the 3/3 Rhino, but everything else in play. But its sheer Terravore-like size is not the reason that some people playing green-white went with the decision. Knight of the Reliquary doesn't just get big .... It can get smart. In a deck like this one, the ability to search up an additional Windbrisk Heights is an impressive one indeed. Phil talked about Ajani Goldmane being generally the best card tokens-on-tokens, but we know that Windbrisk Heights (itself a potential Ajani Impulse and enabler) is maybe the best card in the format. And if that's true, then eight copies (at essentially no additional cost) have got to be better than four!
- The Anti-Deck: The Fog Deck
One of the decks that broke out of Japanese tournament results after we turned in our weekly edition of Top Decks last week was the Fog deck. We are going to talk to Gabe Carleton-Barnes about his experience with the archetype at last week's Regional Championships, but before that, let's pay tribute to the deck that started it all—on this side of the ocean at least—the Tokyo winner played by Koji Takanashi:
The basic way this deck works is by playing out Howling Mine and Font of Mythos to get both players drawing a lot of cards. The cards that the Fog deck is putting into its own hand are predominantly "Fogs" (hence the nickname) ... Batwing Brume, Holy Day, Pollen Lullaby, and even Cryptic Command in a pinch, which are predominantly mana-efficient ways to keep creatures from dealing any damage. Meanwhile, because the opponent was the first one to draw extra from Howling Mine and Font of Mythos, he will presumably deck out; Takanashi's version can also win with Tezzeret the Seeker or a variety of sideboard cards (Glen Elendra Archmage, Hoofprints of the Stag, and Oona, Queen of the Fae can all terrorize an opponent, especially one who sideboarded out creature removal).
Here is the version that Gabe used to make Top 8 in Edison, NJ:
Top Decks: Why did you play this deck? Did you see the Japanese deck first?
Gabe Carleton-Barnes: I was testing the format with Matt Ferrando, and talking about it with a lot of people, and everything was just creatures ... and I hated it. Boat Brew, Black-White Tokens, Green-White Tokens, Finest Hour Bant, etc. I knew such a format had to be vulnerable to something, but a bunch of board sweepers didn't seem to be doing the trick. So I called Jake Van Lunen (who often has crazy ideas) and he told me about the Fog deck from Japan. I was in love immediately! I couldn't find a list anywhere but he said it was clearly in need of improvement anyway, so I just built my own version based on Jake's description.
I liked it because it attacks the format from an unlikely angle .... It just changes all the rules that everyone has been playing by, and that's exactly what I wanted to do. Also it reminded me of Squandered Stasis from Regionals 1998, the first time I ever qualified for a big event. It seemed a good omen.
TD: How much of an edge do you think the field had because of knowing about the Fog deck in general versus if they hadn't heard of it?
GCB: People didn't seem too prepared for the Fog deck. I saw some Everlasting Torments but I always had the Celestial Purge for them. Frankly, I think my zero-Wrath list benefitted somewhat from people knowing about the deck. In the Top 8 my opponent was apparently holding back creatures that could have been changing the game because he was afraid of Wrath. My only losses were to my own play errors (Round 3) and to a deck that was just an incidentally bad matchup: fast creatures and 10-12 main-deck wasy to take out a Howling Mine, with more in the sideboard! But he wasn't running Qasali Pridemages, Tidehollow Scullers, and Maelstrom Pulses just for the Fog deck, I don't think.
TD: What are the good and bad matchups? What is the big incentive matchup to playing this deck?
GCB: The bad matchups are anyone playing ample main-deck artifact removal and aggressive creatures. Maelstrom Pulse is spectacular, as it can hit Jace or multiple Howling Mines. Red decks with lots of burn are tough too, especially in Game 1 .... You have to stick some Runed Halos before you play too many Howling Mines or you'll give them enough burn to kill you pretty quickly.
The incentive is that you beat all these absurdly creature-focused decks in a walk. Black-White Tokens is probably 70-80 percent in our favor after sideboarding, and even better in Game 1. In fact, any deck that plays a lot of tokens is just aiming in the wrong direction to beat you, and those are pretty popular right now.
TD: How does someone beat the Fog deck? (You were talking about how people don't know to just counter the Howling Mines, etc.)
GCB: If you want to beat the Fog deck, just break the Howling Mines. It's the same formula that used to beat Stasis. The deck plays by different rules, and one of those rules is that everyone is drawing lots of cards. This way you can waste cards taking away your opponent's attack phase, since they are wasting cards by drawing unnecessary creatures. But the whole system dies if you just break the Mines and Fonts right away ... especially since the opponent gets to draw off them once, digging into more removal. I mean, if I draw one card per turn and cast Fog every turn ... that seems bad for me. Of course you need to put down enough threats to force them into "Fog every turn" mode as quickly as possible, too.
TD: How do you beat a real control deck?
GCB: You beat real control decks the same way you beat aggro decks. You stop them from winning until they run out of cards. They might have counters and discard and other disruptive nonsense, but they also have a ton of useless creature control and card drawing and fewer ways of putting you on a clock. Runed Halo can be a real monster here, naming win conditions, Thoughtseize, or Cruel Ultimatum. You can cycle away your Angelsongs to lower your Fog density (which is too high otherwise), and try to win the Jace fight long enough to hit one Ultimate. After that, you just have to survive a few turns and they should draw out. When in a counter fight with Cryptic Commands, always bounce their lands. It helps prevent them from using all the extra cards you are giving them.
You'll notice that Gabe's version doesn't have Borderposts or Tezzeret as an alternate win condition. He considered the Seeker unnecessary and a waste of space. Instead, he ran Mind Stone, which give the Fog deck another turn two play besides Howling Mine. If you play the Mine first, you can play Mind Stone on turn three with Negate backup; alternately, the Mind Stone gets you to a faster Font, or a Jace with Fog backup a turn early.
On the way to his Top 8, Gabe had one of the best stories of the day way back in Round One.
"In the very first round of the tournament I got paired against another Fog deck, and in an unlikely turn of events we went to Game 3.
"He had received a game loss, so we hadn't sideboarded yet. My sideboard was a horror of an unprepared, thrown-together, mess, so I sided out my eight non-cycling Fogs and brought in the only eight cards that had a chance of doing something: Runed Halo, Negate, Pithing Needle, Platinum Angel, Hoofprints of the Stag, and two very exciting Burrenton Forge-Tenders!
"We were very short on time, so I was pretty pleased to find a Forge-Tender in my opener, and I dropped him on turn one. Two turns later, I drew the second and plopped him out there. My opponent was ramping up Howling Mines, and as we fought over who would have Jace I just kept plugging away with the 1/1s.
"Eventually he dropped an Archmage, but elected to trade blows for some reason. The 'mage shrank to 1/1 soon, and then I Pithing Needled it. Still, he kept attacking and let my guys in. I dropped him to 4 and played Hoofprints of the Stag, which stuck!
"After I dropped him to 2 and made a 4/4 Elemental he finally made his move with Oona and other nonsense, but I had Cryptic Command to counter and tap his guys (and enough Negates to back it up). He had Runed Halo, but the Elemental was there to finish the job.
"Forge-Tenders were definitely MVPs, though."
Well, there you have it: One version of the Windbrisk Heights strategy set up to race other Windbrisk Heights decks to the goal lines of what they do best, one anti–Windbrisk Heights deck that just might be the solution to the metagame. Or according to Osyp Lebedowicz:
"I love that deck! If you're a decent player, you can't lose with it. I want to play it so much! It does my two favorite things in Magic, draw lots of cards and piss off your opponent!"
And really, what does any Magic player want more than those two things?