Good at Everything

Posted in Top Decks on February 19, 2009

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."

Last week's PTQ data included a win for a Bant Aggro-Control deck, a deck I'd like to take a closer look at today. The deck, piloted by Modesto player Kenneth Ellis, is an innovative and interesting look at aggro-control.

As you may have read in Brian David-Marshall's column, Ellis and fellow Modesto player Robert Cash were involved in a serious car accident on their way back from San Diego. Ellis was critically injured in the crash and Cash lost his life. For those of you who want to share your thoughts, memories, and condolences, Wizards of the Coast has set up a special forum here.

Please consider the following article an attempt to bring light to and explore a very different and obviously successful Extended deck that you may want to think about for an upcoming PTQ.

Let's take another look at the data from last week's article:

Faerie Wizards
2 Wins, 10 Top 8s
1 Win, 4 Top 8s
Black-Green No Cloud
1 Win, 1 Top 8
Bant Aggro Control
1 Win
5 Top 8s
4 Top 8s
Naya Beatdown
3 Top 8s
Green-Blue Control
2 Top 8s
All-In Red
1 Top 8
Black-Green Death Cloud
1 Top 8
Lightning Bolt
1 Top 8
Mono-Red Burn
1 Top 8
1 Top 8
1 Top 8

As we saw then, the most recent PTQ data shows us a picture where Faerie Wizards is arguably the strongest deck (with the most PTQ Top 8s as well as the most wins), but where there are certainly other ways to win. Among these are perennial contender Affinity (more on that later) and, most interestingly, the Bant Aggro-Control deck that is the principle subject of this article.

Kenneth Ellis's Bant Aggro-Control

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Put simply, this is exactly the kind of deck that I like most. I am sure there is a segment of players reading this who are looking to play Magic as it was intended to be played—a rewarding conflict of creatures and complex interactions—who find it refreshing that it is possible to play (and succeed with) some sort of attack deck other than a single-minded burn deck, which can dictate the pace of the game in the face of theoretically more powerful control decks, certainly faster attack decks, and of course the tidal wave of combination titans.


Ellis's deck is reminiscent of a Haterator, a block green-white deck, a classic Troll / Equipment list, and—ironically—a modern Wizards deck all at the same time.

The first question many players new to the deck might ask is why it might be advisable to try a deck like this rather than a Wizards deck full of counterspells. The first and simplest incentive is the presence of Birds of Paradise. Birds of Paradise—which we have recently called the best one-drop in the history of the game—takes threes and transforms them into twos. Therefore a card like Rhox War Monk—sometimes mediocre and sometimes unbeatable—can appear on the second turn to laugh off an impending Wild Nacatl, or a Vendilion Clique can show up a turn early to assess just how dangerous the remaining four cards of the foe who just dropped a pair of Lotus Blooms might be.

Gaddock Teeg

This deck plays both main deck and sideboard Gaddock Teeg. Now Teeg was a card that got a tremendous amount of attention when he first appeared as an anti–Wrath of God superstar ... but has lived up to the initial hype only part of the way. Teeg is quite interesting in this deck. Ellis's deck is deceptively powerful, but its lineup contains exactly one card with a mana cost of four or greater ... and that one is in the sideboard. Because it is a non-burn creature deck, this one's attack plan typically requires either successful equipment or a small swarm; in the latter case, Gaddock Teeg is a useful tool against not just a Damnation sweep spell, but racing from the increasingly popular (in Extended) Cryptic Command. His pedigree against the ubiquitous Engineered Explosives and the resurgent flagship Mind's Desire should go without saying.

In a number of relevant matchups for this deck in particular, Teeg represents one of a number of progressive and interweaving layers, which combined with the respectable clock of a Tarmogoyf and Sword of Fire and Ice, makes for a difficult combination offense to race. To wit, second turn Teeg is no lock against the Storm deck ... There is an Electrolyze or Magma Jet somewhere in the opponent's synergistic sixty. However Teeg represents time because nothing is likely going to get done before he is killed. Therefore cards that are quite good but also not good enough to win by themselves like Vendilion Clique and Glen Elendra Archmage (itself nearly good enough but often disappointing against Gigadrowse) get the breathing room they need to chip away at the Storm deck's list of outs. All together 2/2, 3/1, other 2/2, and sundry additional pulls can take care of a combo deck before that deck's pre-combo / anti-anti-combo lineup can show up.

Glen Elendra Archmage

Speaking of Glen Elendra Archmage, this is a card that has been seeing more and more main-deck play. It is also one of the best examples of a card that benefits from playing alongside Birds of Paradise. Glen Elendra Archmage is almost unbreakable when set up with the right teammates, again with enough time under its belt that it can contain a game. With Birds of Paradise on turn one, the Archmage is more likely to hit inside the critical time limits ... Remember, the Archmage is on its face a four, but functionally a five (it does nothing but block if you tap out for it).

Rhox War Monk, Tarmogoyf, and Troll Ascetic are all in a common pot with one another in this deck: They are good—in some cases great—creatures wandering around with nowhere to live. We are a bit spoiled with the modern mana bases and don't necessarily remember a time when Phyrexian War Beast was on the first string of a Pro Tour–winning deck list, or that players across Magic's two strongest colors would bend and sacrifice in order to be able to play Steel Golem. Rhox War Monk is just impossibly good ... but has heretofore been the victim of an almost criminally inoffensive three-color mana requirement. The card is just fantastic, and in Ellis's deck, it has a place to show how fantastic it can be. As luck would have it, some of the strongest decks in the metagame are stupid burn decks that don't operate very well against this as a racer.

Tarmogoyf has somehow gone from being a ubiquitous Extended two-drop to barely played at all. Ellis's deck plays the superb two-drop and ... and .... That's about it. Tarmogoyf is quite good.

Troll Ascetic

Troll Ascetic is a different story. I have always considered the Ascetic overrated (in particular it is a poor blocker the first turn out), but there is no denying its effectiveness with a good piece of Equipment. Ellis's deck is close to being a legitimate good Equipment deck, and therefore Troll Ascetic can potentially shine. More specifically, Faeries still looks to be the most popular deck in the format, and Faeries can really only beat Troll Ascetic by racing. If there is an active Sword of Fire and Ice in the mix .... There isn't even that option.

As for the Equipment, everyone knows how good Umezawa's Jitte is (again) in Extended. The real gem is Sword of Fire and Ice, which is one of the most underplayed cards in the format at present. It has always been good but in a deck with Birds of Paradise, in a format where Faeries is the dominant deck, Sword of Fire and Ice is superb. First turn Birds of Paradise, second turn Sword of Fire and Ice is just game sometimes; and for all the times it's not ... you have the rich turn-to-turn interplay of great creatures wearing great equipment and generating advantages and edges through Red Zone interaction.

Troll Ascetic also has a nice synergy with the singleton Worship in the sideboard. I really like Worship in this kind of a deck, and one copy in particular. It is the kind of thing that you probably never want to rely on—strategically—to win (creatures are just these fragile things, and even opposing attack decks will often have something along the lines of a Duergar Hedge-Mage to break up the combo) ... but it is something that when it strikes unprepared opponents will just bowl them over entirely, the equivalent sometimes of infinite card advantage; don't screw up and you can't lose.

Ethersworn Canonist
Relic of Progenitus

Ethersworn Canonist and Relic of Progenitus are two more powerful sideboard cards, inexpensive trinkets that simply have to be respected by combo and Loam, respectively.

But the gem of this sideboard given potential shifts in the metagame is Kataki, War's Wage. But like I said before ... more on that later.

Kataki, War's Wage

The Bant Aggro-Control deck is not a single-minded anything. It probably defaults to attacking in most games given its fast drops, reasonable offense, and equipment, but this is a deck that can mold itself to a number of opposing strategies and simply react profitably.

Consider the following video, Bant versus Merfolk:

Ellis's deck in this game shows off a couple of very different, sometimes disparate or unexpected, but ultimately progressively synergistic angles of offense. First of all, the deck just plays better creatures than "the Blue Ironclaw Orcs" that Merfolk can muster for combat purposes. Troll Ascetic in particular is a difficult threat to deal with because it is impossible to kill in combat (provided Bant Aggro-Control is careful) and it starts to matter even with all the evasion once Worship shows up.

Typically green decks hate Sower of Temptation (or Bribery, or Treachery, or a hundred different Control Magic effects over the years), but even after Bant Aggro-Control gets the poor Rhox War Monk stolen, it has many clever interactions that allow it back into the game. Vendilion Clique as an instant is an underrated combat play. In this example, it allowed Bant to deal with the first Sower of Temptation and banish the (presumably) second Sower to a pit so deep it would never climb out, flying or no.

Sower of Temptation
Bant Charm

Bant Charm itself was also key. In this game it banished the final Sower of Temptation—ensuring board domination via superior forces—but had things gone a little differently, Bant Charm might have been called upon to defend against Cryptic Command so that the good guys could win an unlikely game via Troll Ascetic + Worship.

And that is really the incentive to a deck like Bant Aggro-Control. It can potentially present a number of different games depending on the opponent. Against a red deck, for example, it can defend a Rhox War Monk or Umezawa's Jitte and win lopsided on the merits. Sideboarded against Storm, it can just litter the floor with Ethersworn Canonists, Glen Elendra Archmages, and legendary Kithkin Advisors, delaying a combo kill long enough to win with ... well ... beatdown.

Of all the decks in the format, I think this strategy may gain the most from Conflux. Of course there is the potential to upgrade at least a couple of Bant Charms to the modern Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, but the real gem is Noble Hierarch.

Path to Exile
Noble Hierarch

I have been in a situation recently where I have been trying to find reasons not to play Noble Hierarch over [whatever] ... but this is a deck where the Hierarch is just a shining beacon to the future. The swap over Birds of Paradise is nearly seamless; that is, the Hierarch serves essentially the same function mana-wise, but can also carry Umezawa's Jitte. While Birds of Paradise arguably swings a more accurate Sword of Fire and Ice from its little beak, the potential to out-and-out win Tarmogoyf fights (or Tarmogoyf races) due to the presence of the exalted Noble Hierarch is just too exciting for words. If you would consider playing this deck, I urge you to consider Noble Hierarch as well.

In closing, I just want to mention a potential shift in the metagame that many superb analysts all seem to be noticing at the same time. While it does not necessarily bear out in the PTQ data that we have to date, I would hazard that Affinity may be creeping up to Deck to Beat status. I have heard a lot of anecdotes about "just losing to Affinity" or "Affinity winning the PTQ" or "losing the Affinity mirror in the Finals."

Plus, we know Affinity to be a fine weapon against Faeries, which has been the most popular for a fair amount of this season.

Check out especially Game 3 of this video for some cute observations vis-à-vis Bant Aggro-Control and the Affinity matchup:

So another reason you might want to consider the Bant Aggro-Control is simply that it can play Kataki, War's Wage in a metagame with a rising Affinity population. Kataki, War's Wage is absolutely brutal against Affinity if you can stick that particular legendary Spirit on the second turn, as evidenced by Game 3 (and numerous other videos).

Again, just something to consider.

I have my first PTQ of the season this weekend (please wish me good luck)! And good luck to any of you searching for the blue envelope in the next few days.

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