Grand Slam

Posted in Top Decks on May 28, 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."

Let's begin with a Regionals wrap-up. Last week (as some of you guessed in the forums) I wrote my article without the benefit of the Top 8 deck lists from Regionals, and so focused on a couple of decks played by my own friends to Top 8 at my own Regionals. Now we have, if not a full reporting, a fine number of Top 8s, and plenty to talk about.

As we predicted a couple of weeks ago, the top decks at U.S. Regionals were Black-White and Green-White Tokens decks. So how about my bet with Jon Becker? It looks like your old pal michaelj lost this one. I stipulated that more than half of qualifying deck lists would be based on Spectral Procession, Windbrisk Heights, and their assorted good buddies (most notably Cloudgoat Ranger, but with a tip of the hat to Bitterblossom, Marsh Flitter, and in the case of the red-white cousin, Siege-Gang Commander). It looks like just under half of the qualifying decks meet my description, so ... Looks like I owe the Godfather a(nother) Katz's pastrami sandwich!

Traditionally I would spend the next couple of paragraphs talking about how super important it will be, as we continue through the present PTQ and Grand Prix format, to either shuffle up or prepare for the two major tokens decks and their close relatives (Bant, B/W Kithkin, regular old Kithkin, and so on)... After all, it wasn't long ago that we drew a line in the virtual sand and said that Windbrisk Heights is the top card in the format.


I figure at this point you get how that strategy works.

Instead I will talk about what can only be considered the most important new strategy to come out of U.S. Regionals.

But first, I would like to talk a little bit about social networking.

I mean live coverage from the Tournament Center now includes a Twitter feed, but what is more interesting and funny given the current state of events came from a site that most of you probably already visit every day. To wit, Magic: The Gathering bossman Aaron Forsythe (himself a onetime Regionals deck designer of some gigantic excitement):

Aaron Forsythe is hoping some interesting new things come out of Regionals.

For those of you who didn't know, right before he signed on with the Renton, WA illuminati, Forsythe produced a hellacious deck that ran all over summer Standard, which debuted at the Ohio Valley Regionals that year. Basically, he took a perfectly good mono-green land destruction deck and added cards like Avalanche Riders and Ancient Hydra, resisting suggestions from the Mad Genius of Magic Erik Lauer to include such spells as Shock.

Avalanche Riders
Ancient Hydra

Aaron's only response? A cryptic call-back from Boat Brewer Brian Kowal (Kowal Trivia: As far as the "Brew" in Boat Brew goes, Brian hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, though he is now a resident of Madison).

a 40 land deck q'd at ours. Is that interesting enough?

Before gaining notoriety with his red-white Reveillark / Windbrisk Heights deck, Kowal was best known for taking a perfectly good color (red), eschewing the popular one-mana spells, and replacing them with what Randy Buehler once called "terrible, uncastable spells" ... So you can see that these guys see eye-to-eye when it comes to some things Standard.

The deck that Brian was talking about was Cascade Swans; the Chicago-area deck, for the record, featured forty-two lands.

Parth Modi's Cascade Swans

Download Arena Decklist

Those of you who regularly read Brian David-Marshall's column here on the mother ship probably already know all about this powerful new strategy.

Swans of Bryn Argoll

Top Decks has already spent several columns talking about Cascade, as a mechanic, in terms of the incremental advantages available; that is, what most players probably thought of as the "obvious" utilization of the mechanic. The Cascade Swans deck takes a route more like our original discussion of a Limited Terminate; when Terminate is the only two mana spell in your forty-card deck, than any three-mana cascade spell is going to double as a Terminate. The Cascade Swans deck takes this principle and applies the same to a single three-mana spell: Seismic Assault. Therefore when you play a Bloodbraid Elf, you have exactly one kind of card that will appear thanks to cascade: Seismic Assault; that is, half of your combination.

The other half of the combo is of course Swans of Bryn Argoll.

With both of these cards in play (and assuming the opponent doesn't have something along the lines of a Pithing Needle set to Seismic Assault already in play), you can take any of the many lands that are inevitably in your hand and you can start throwing them at the Swans; each land would deal 2 points of damage, but will instead allow you to draw two cards. Your deck is over two-thirds lands, so you are favored to at least "break even" on land draws until you can assemble the ten or so lands you need in hand to start throwing them at the opponent.

Now look at the spell slots in Parth Modi's deck. Ad Nauseam is there as a low-danger card drawing option. Basically, the deck is over two-thirds lands, so you can draw a fair amount of lands without investing much life.

Ad Nauseam
Bituminous Blast

The more important and last spell is Bituminous Blast, Bloodbraid Elf's cousin in Cascade. This card can only flip up Swans of Bryn Argoll, Bloodbraid Elf, or Seismic Assault as Ad Nauseam and the other copies of Bituminous Blast are five mana spells. Because Bloodbraid Elf can itself only produce a Seismic Assault via Cascade, that means that Bituminous Blast will yeild a Swans of Bryn Argoll about one third of the time and a Seismic Assault about two thirds of the time; in either case, it will be producing a combo piece (you just don't usually get to pick which).

One of the cool side effects of playing so many lands is that this deck is essentially never manascrewed (flooded is another issue entirely, but it is never manascrewed!). But far from being flooded on a consistent basis, this version of the Cascade Swans strategy packs a ton of functional lands. There is a basic Mountain for Path to Exile, and a host of man-lands to initiate attack against decks that produce a lot of Blue mana: Mutavault, Ghitu Encampment, and Treetop Village!

Treetop Village

But on top of all those man-lands—and in the spirit of all these Windbrisk Heights—the deck plays the red hideaway land, Spinerock Knoll.

Spinerock Knoll

In this deck the card you really want to get under Spinerock Knoll is Swans of Bryn Argoll. The deck can easily hard-cast Seismic Assault with Spinerock Knoll and two other sources of red mana (which are obviously plentiful in this deck, including Treetop Village when combined with Fire-Lit Thicket). Then on the fourth turn you can untap and initiate thusly:

  1. Toss four lands at the opponent.
  2. Having dealt 8 damage (that is, one more than 7), you get to activate Spinerock Knoll.
  3. Reveal ye olde Swans of Bryn Argoll ...
  4. And that's the combo! Start hammering the Swans with your remaining lands in hand, then finish the game.

Since Regionals, Spinerock Knoll has fallen a bit in popularity due to the very realistic possibility of just revealing a bunch of lands (after all, there aren't very many spells in the deck, and pretty much the only one you want is Swans of Bryn Argoll). However there is an incentive in that you get one more way to win on the fourth turn.

We haven't done this in a while, but here is a video I made about the Cascade Swans deck. This video is based on Modi's Regionals version, so lacks any innovations we talk about in the Grand Prix section (but you do get to see a turn-four kill!):

So ... About that Grand Prix...

There was a 1,400+ player Standard tournament in Barcelona last weekend, and Cascade Swans, It Deck coming out of Regionals 2009, finished out on top. Here is how the Top 8 looked:

Cascade Swans

Joel Calafell's Cascade Swans

Download Arena Decklist

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's Cascade Swans

Download Arena Decklist

Hugo De Jong's Cascade Swans

Download Arena Decklist

These decks work more or less the same way as the Regionals version; however note the de-emphasis on Bituminous Blast in all the deck lists. Hugo De Jong didn't play Bituminous Blastat all, and the other two decks in the Top 8 cut the Blasts to two.

The fact is, Bituminous Blast was / is probably the weakest card in the deck. As a five-mana spell, it is slow; as a creature removal spell you can only play it at all when you have something to aim it at, and as we noted above, you don't get to pick what you are going to get. Note that all three decks played Primal Command on five, which is another card that can help you find Swans of Bryn Argoll.

Primal Command

Some well known American players went into Grand Prix–Barcelona with a different take on Cascade Swans. Here is Luis Scott-Vargas's deck:

Luis Scott-Vargas's Cascade Swans

Download Arena Decklist

Luis didn't make Top 8, but there is a nice change in the five spot here; Deny Reality is a card that many players have been talking about due to their dissatisfaction with Bituminous Blast (you need to have a target, it is undirected anyway) ... Deny Reality has the same Cascade pedigree, but it is slightly more versatile to play, and gives the deck some resistence (especially main deck) to permanent-based disruption such as Pithing Needle and Runed Halo.

Deny Reality

Tokens – Still Strong

Even given the hype and genuine excitement surrounding Cascade Swans, Barcelona showed us that the Tokens strategy is still a solid competitor, with two representatives in the Top 8:

George Paraskuopoulos's Black-White Tokens

Download Arena Decklist

Ricardo Venancio's Black-White Tokens

Download Arena Decklist

Both of these decks were black-white "persist" versions, which included the main-deck combination of (in these cases) seven persist creatures and Ajani Goldmane. Kitchen Finks and Murderous Redcap are notoriously difficult to kill permanently when combined with Ajani Goldmane, a planeswalker which in turn makes everybody else gigantic.

Ajani Goldmane
Murderous Redcap

You'll note that both of these decks played with two copies of Identity Crisis in the sideboard. If they can keep the Cascade Swans deck from killing them inside of turn six (or perhaps the mighty Windbrisk Heights can answer the call), these decks can almost ensure victory with Identity Crisis. I've been on the wrong side of that spell with Cascade Swans a couple of times so far in testing, and I have yet to fight my way out of it.

Celestial Purge

Should a Swans player lay out his Seismic Assault naked on turn three, Paraskevopoulos can snipe it with Celestial Purge, whereas Venancio can hide behind Runed Halo. One of the cards I really like in Ricardo's sideboard is Batwing Brume, which seems like a great racing tool against other Tokens or aggo decks.

Faeries – Not Dead

It seems like the doom of the Faerie nation was announced prematurely. American standout Sam Black collected another premiere event finish with the good old—sorry, bad old—Faeries deck:

Sam Black's Faeries

Download Arena Decklist

Sam played a straightforward Scion of Oona version, a variation on the classic for this archetype.

Something many players may have forgotten in their adoption of, say, the Fog deck is how Mistbind Clique works. You see, a careful Faeries player can easily wait to have a lethal alpha strike on the board and then play Mistbind Clique. Not only is that a worthwhile spell to fight over on the opponent's end of turn, but the Fog deck simply doesn't have that many permission spells that it can aim at a Mistbind Clique. As such, the Clique—some Clique, you do have four—should resolve. Once that happens the opponent should be mostly or totally tapped, allowing you to get one good shot in that your foe can't successfully Fog.

Mistbind Clique

Planeswalkers – Is that a Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker?

Riccardo Neri's Five-Color Control

Download Arena Decklist

Neri's deck isn't a Five-Color Control deck as we typically talk about them, or even a new-fangled Five-Color Beatdown sorta-control deck based on Bloodbraid Elf (but that still has many of the trappings of the control side). This is more of a planeswalker deck. It invests in powerful and expensive permanents and uses them over and over again.

Case in point, two permanents that you may not have seen in serious decks, Obelisk of Alara and OMG IS THAT NICOL BOLAS, PLANESWALKER OMG!!!

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Obelisk of Alara does a little bit of everything ... It can dig you out of a hole, keep creatures off your back, or win the game directly, 3 points at a time.

Obelisk of Alara

Hopefully this will not be the last time we see Nicol Bolas in a serious sixty. I actually feel that Nicol Bolas is a superb sideboard card for Five-Color Control (or straight Grixis Control, assuming there would be any) specifically against midrange control decks or something along the lines of a Jund Mana Ramp. Basically these kinds of decks can't kill you before turn eight, and if they let you untap with Nicol Bolas ... well ... there is a reason this particular planeswalker costs eight mana.

In sum, and with a long summer PTQ season ahead of us focused on this format, I think the message is that Cascade Swans is the exciting new It Deck (for now) but that there are twenty or more viable decks, and that—just as with the conceptual leaps that glued a very mid-range Control mechanic onto a combo kill in the Swans deck—customization remains alive and well and available throughout the format. Good luck to everyone reaching for the Blue Envelope this weekend!

Latest Top Decks Articles


August 2, 2018

Team Trios Constructed at the Pro Tour – Modern and Legacy by, Simon Görtzen

Pro Tour 25th Anniversary Coverage Begins Today! Tune in to for four days of Pro Tour coverage celebrating Magic's 25th Anniversary, beginning TODAY (August 2) at 2 p.m. ...

Learn More


July 31, 2018

Team Trios Constructed at the Pro Tour – Standard by, Simon Görtzen

Tomorrow, I'll board a plane to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to cover Pro Tour 25th Anniversary. On Thursday, August 2, the $150,000 Silver Showcase kicks off the action with a once-in-a-lifet...

Learn More



Top Decks Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All