The Highlight Reel

Posted in Top Decks on April 21, 2011

By Mike Flores

So... Jace, the Mind Sculptor count.

At the time of this writing I had access to deck lists from nine of the twenty-one National Qualifier Top 8s, but we are tracking at 168 of a possible 288 Jaces. So the best card in the format is still present in more than half the decks in the National Qualifiers Top 8s, but quite a bit shy of the 32/32 that we saw in the Top 8 of the recent Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth.

Of the Top 8s that I do (again, at the time of this writing) have access to, this is how the National Qualifiers various shook out:

Looking at these results, my opinion is that the conversation is a bit off-center. I don't really think it's a question about Jace, the Mind Sculptor so much as it should be a conversation about Caw-Blade.

Caw-Blade is a better-performing deck in Standard than... well... almost any deck that has ever operated at scale. It's just a wonderful deck that great players use to great success. I think that is a big difference between the current Standard (which many great players think is a great format, and I agree) and the more draw-dependent predecessors that hovered around Bitterblossom or Bloodbraid Elf.

Caw-Blade is a highly interactive, skill-intensive deck that consistently rewards great players. Case in point, Joshua Ravitz easily cruised to a 6-0 finish in New York this weekend past, before double-drawing into his US Nationals invitation. Josh has played Stoneforge Mystic five times now. Of those five, he made Top 8 of consecutive Open Series events, won a PTQ (albeit in Extended), and now went undefeated at his Nationals Qualifier. So he didn't Top 8 the Grand Prix... You can't win 'em all!

If it were really about Jace, the Mind Sculptor, wouldn't we have had some greater indication before Mirrodin Besieged?

Previously the conversation was all around Primeval Titan; at the beginning of the season, we saw Mono-Green Eldrazi and Red-Green Valakut decks as dominant, and there was chatter (albeit misguided, we can probably all agree) about Valakut being an all-time boogeyman a la Faeries and Jund. Valakut, however seemingly effective, was just a deck. A good deck maybe, but not a boogeyman. Caw-Blade is something else... It's not a boogeyman because it isn't soul-crushing or monotonous. Caw-Blade doesn't cast the trademark "The Fix"-like shadow that has made players from the Deadguy Red to Fires of Yavimaya to, of course, Faeries and Jund eras hate playing against the Deck to Beat. Caw-Blade is simply a statistical outlier; a truly great deck.

It benefits from having not only the best card in the format—Jace, the Mind Sculptor—but also an intersection of the two best creatures in the format, Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk, all under the same roof. Squadron Hawk was available during the Caw-Go era (but no one was complaining about the deck back then); it was the appearance of Sword of Feast and Famine that elevated Stoneforge Mystic's game (and gave Squadron Hawk the path to realize its place in the Standard pantheon) that granted this deck in particular the seemingly unassailable title of best of breed.

We have been talking about Caw-Blade seemingly since its first appearance at Pro Tour Paris (where it, of course, won in the hands of Ben Stark)... yet the deck continues to evolve, improve, and reward highly skilled pilots.

    Know Your Enemy

Josh Ravitz's Caw-Blade

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Josh's deck is reasonably representative of the modern Caw-Blade.

Most players have taken their cues from primarily Joshua Utter-Leyton's Grand Prix build.

So look for these decks to run one or even more likely two copies of Inkmoth Nexus as a Sword-carrier... You will also often see one main-deck Sun Titan, which as a Sword-bearer is big enough to beat up most everyone, plus can buy back many lost resources (Swords, Mystics, even Jace Beleren).

You are going to see a Mortarpodsomewhere... Typically main deck, but at least in the sideboard, as players like Gavin Verhey in Washington chose to go. The wholesale adoption of Mortarpod in the environment has essentially extincted the Red- and Black-splashing Caw-Blade variants. Of the decks I looked at, there was but one copy of Angry Birds, and no DarkBlade decks at all.

As I said before, I think Jace, the Mind Sculptor's position in this deck (and by extension the metagame) is a bit exaggerated; don't confuse that for Jace not being the best card in the format, because he is... He just isn't the be-all and end-all. Case in point, in Josh's win-and-in round, he played his umpteenth Caw-Blade mirror. In the deciding game, his opponent controlled Jace, the Mind Sculptor essentially from turn four through the rest of the game, ultimately out-drawing Josh three Jaces to none.

To an observer, it never looked like Josh was out of the driver's seat. Regardless of what Jace was trying to do, Josh could advance his board with Squadron Hawks, keep his opponent's mana tapped, and move around Mortarpods and Swords to prevent profitable defensive blocking. I found this refreshing as the conventional wisdom says that in these kinds of mirrors, the player with Jace is advantaged... but at least in this one game, it didn't seem that way.

Ravitz later pointed out that at that point he had played close to 40 tournament rounds with essentially the same deck list (if you include his Extended PTQ win, where skills still transfer), and that familiarity with the deck lends an edge in the mirror. Caw-Blade is a deck that rewards practice, as unlike the Bitterblossoms and Bloodbraid Elves-into-Blightnings of the past, its powerhouse card "god draws" actually give you more and more decisions to make, rather than just more card advantage.

For example, what Equipment you get with a second-turn Stoneforge Mystic will color your entire game... yet Mortarpod is often the right answer. That said, what you do with this Mortarpod gives you a mana dump for the rest of the game, as well as a not-insignificant point of toughness to play around with.

Previously the red removal, viz. Cunning Sparkmage, was useful in sniping down Squadron Hawks, but Mortarpod allows a Caw-Blade deck to take down the birds in response to the opponent's equipping Sword of Feast and Famine. This functionality has given straight White-Blue Caw-Blade the new lease on life... which it expresses with more consistent mana and access to four copies of Tectonic Edge.

For a minority (or at least now-minority) take on the same, consider a red-white-blue version of Caw-Blade:

Charlie Pieper's Red-White-Blue Caw-Blade

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When this style of deck came out, it was considered the answer to the newly anointed best deck in the format.

The red version retains most of the non-Tectonic Edge functionality of Caw-Blade, and adds more efficient removal. Because of the presence of Cunning Sparkmage and Inferno Titan, Angry Birds will usually opt for Basilisk Collar as the secondary (that is, non-Sword of Feast and Famine) piece of Equipment. Basilisk Collar can gain life like a Sylvok Lifestaff, but essentially makes Cunning Sparkmage into an even better Royal Assassin, and transforms Inferno Titan into something else entirely. Something awesome!

Without leaving white and blue we have a variety of different strategies we can explore. This is what a successful deck might look like without Stoneforge Mystic and Sword of Feast and Famine:

Luke Hilmes's White-Blue Control

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Luke's deck has a bunch of creatures that do interesting things when they hit the battlefield. Sea Gate Oracle and Wall of Omens help regulate your draws and hit your land drops. Sun Titan works nicely with basically everything in the deck (including Jace Beleren, which is arguably a superior role player than Jace, the Mind Sculptor in this deck... at least when you consider the presence of the Titan), and can make for relentless disruption alongside Tectonic Edge.

The real gem, though, is Contagion Clasp.

The Clasp makes any and all Tumble Magnets infinite and has significant synergy with all the deck's many planeswalkers. You can go Ultimate with Jace, the Mind Sculptor while Brainstorming every turn, or similarly buoy Gideon or Venser (especially when the former is aggressively and defensively sticking his neck out). Venser the Sojourner has a special place in a deck with so many counters... You can reset a permanent on zero (for example, a spent Tumble Magnet), returning it to functionality.

Max Goldstein's BantBlade

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Kind of in the neighborhood of White-Blue Control is Max Goldstein's Bant-colored control deck. This deck wants to win turn nine or later in all likelihood (what, with those 5/5 white and blue flyers), but can still get the jump on the opponent with Lotus Cobra. Turn-two Lotus Cobra into Verdant Catacombs can deposit quite the Baneslayer Angel the next turn!

Max's deck is like a Bant-colored answer to Red-Green-Blue: tons of planeswalkers and powerful finishers, with Lotus Cobra and Explore as the two drops that get him there. Baneslayer Angel on five is kind of like the Bant Control's Precursor Golem, with Sphinx of Jwar Isle playing the role of Inferno Titan.

Mana Leak, Preordain, Gideon Jura, and of course Jace, the Mind Sculptor are so good that you can build all different details around a solid framework of powerful cards and end up in a number of interesting places.

Speaking of interesting, here is a deck that likes the other Jace better:

Bo King's Blue-Black Exhaustion

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A first-turn Hedron Crab can prove pretty annoying in this deck. Every land that King played would mean three cards from the opponent's deck, and the rest is full of surprises, too.

King's deck can present the elusive unbeatable opening hand. I mean what do you call it when he has two copies of Archive Trap on a natural draw, alongside Trapmaker's Snare? The opponent plays Squadron Hawk or Stoneforge Mystic... and then what happens next? Thirty-nine cards come off the top? Does that even leave enough deck left to win the game? With Hedron Crab in the mix?

Sure, this deck might not get along well with the Eldrazi Green decks that have crept back into the metagame (if even at a conservative clip relative to the many Caw-Blade decks)... but when you consider all the shuffling being done between the Misty Rainforests and Caw-Blade's eight-pack? There is a ton of opportunity here, especially when you consider the speed of Jace Beleren and the endgame hammer that can come down on turn five with Haunting Echoes.

And given the ability of this deck to semi-transform into a defensive anti-creature deck with all Go for the Throat and Black Sun's Zenith? I wouldn't be surprised if a contender didn't come out of this Top 8 deck.

Of course my favorite Top 8 competitor was Virginia's Lukasz Hall:

Lukasz Hall's Green-Blue Genesis Wave

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Hall ran the Green-Blue Genesis Wave deck, largely as described in my friend Brian David-Marshall's column after the Open Series event in Edison, New Jersey.

Genesis Wave is arguably the most powerful deck in the metagame, kind of like the next level evolution of Mono-Green Eldrazi... Sorta that deck, if it had Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

Green-Blue can play an overpowering game that can come as quickly as a turn-three Primeval Titan (first-turn Joraga Treespeaker, second-turn Lotus Cobra, third-turn Primeval Titan), which can then set up a turn-four Genesis Wave (Primeval Titan gets Halimar Depths and another land, probably Verdant Catacombs for Lotus Cobra). Halimar Depths helps you set up your Genesis Wave + land drop... I'm sure you see where this is going.

The deck is entirely optimized around six-mana permanents or cheaper. The only non-permanent card in the deck is Genesis Wave itself. Everything else hits the battlefield off a Wave, with a Wave for six or more fearing only multiple copies of Jace or too many Genesis Waves in the top six (or however many more than six).

Wall of Tanglecord and Tumble Magnet are the deck's one-two punch against Sword of Feast and Famine, with the underappreciated 0/6 a truly annoying answer to an equipped Squadron Hawk.

In addition to the power game, the green-blue deck has a superb tempo game. As Lukasz played it, the deck has main-deck Spreading Seas to slow down mana development, which can be supplemented via Acidic Slime (often on turn three after sideboarding), Frost Titan keeping mana tapped, or Primeval Titan, which can go and get two copies of Tectonic Edge. The mana control aspect keeps Green-Blue Wave multi-dimensional, and just gives it (with Acidic Slime) even more game against Sword of Feast and Famine.

Jonathan Sukenik, again from the NYC Qualifier:

Jonathan Sukenik's Grixis Tezzeret

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Sukenik is an up-and-coming eighteen-year-old from New Jersey. He has played in one event and three Open Series, and made Top 8 of all four; as Watchwolf92 on Magic Online, Jonathan is currently in 17th place in the Player of the Year race, but for our purposes, he may have a key to unlocking this metagame.

The Grixis Tezzeret deck will be sending Jonathan to US Nationals via wins over Caw-Blade and RUG and other decks, for a 6-0-2 finish.

"The deck has a lot of game and synergies that involve a lot of practice. For example, you really want to have a Mountain in play on turn two. The reason for this is Koth of the Hammer. Many people questioned Koth, but let's just say that it kills both Jaces, indirectly gains life against aggro, and if you ever get an emblem, you're in good shape. You want to use your Scalding Tarns to get Mountains as often as possible.

"Another sleeper in the deck is Contagion Clasp, with all of the Planeswalkers. I beat Black-Red Vampires in Game 3 by Jace-ing into Tezzeret, playing it, proliferating, and draining him for 10... Only to play another Tezzeret next turn, and doing the same thing to take the match.

"Another example of an interesting play was against RDW. I knew my opponent had Searing Blaze, and was behind 7-16 (with 4 damage coming from my Koth). I only saw one course of action due to his Arid Mesa in play. I animated his Mountains with Koth every turn until I could Ultimate my Koth and kill him with my Mountains, pinging for 1. I skillfully ended that game at 3."

The message is actually pretty interesting here. Jonathan subtly tells us why some players—armed with planeswalkers various, if most obviously Jace, the Mind Sculptor—are consistently doing well in this format: These powerful cards give them options, and most specifically, options that they can take without spending incremental mana. The Tezzeret kill over Vampires might not be obvious, but it's at least straightforward... but Koth animating the opponent's lands to get to the emblem? Pretty clever!

In the spirit of Koth of the Hammer, let's close with a deck by Tommy Luke in Colorado... Which didn't have any kind of Jace at all!

Tommy Luke's Big Red

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Luke played a ton of artifacts in his Big Red deck, giving him the ability to re-buy Kuldotha Phoenix.

As with many decks adopting the colorless breakout card, Luke's first line of defense is Tumble Magnet. But with eight two-mana artifact accelerators, Tommy is set up not only for metalcraft sometime in the future, but can play his planeswalker on turn three!

I am sure that by the time you see this article, there will be tons of Top 8 deck lists I haven't had the chance to see yet, and you will have even more information that I have been able to share today. Good luck in any future National Qualifiers you attend this season, no matter what deck you play.

Up next: Top Decks comes to New Phyrexia!

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