Life After Caw-Blade (But Before M12)

Posted in Top Decks on July 7, 2011

By Mike Flores

Last week Top Decks was devoted to bringing you new Magic 2012 planeswalker Chandra, the Firebrand (and I am very excited about the possibilities she brings with her!)... but this week we are back in the business of discussing the top decks around the planes.

When last we were on this topic, Caw-Blade (and up-and-coming Caw-Blade inheritor Twin-Blade) was / were at the top of a metagame largely defined by Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. The June 20 bannings brought a close to that chapter in Standard, however, freeing up the format for presumably a Titan invasion, with many pundits predicting a return to the Primeval Titan-dominated pre-Paris metagame, with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle as the Deck to Beat.

Since the bannings we have had a fair amount of play on Magic Online as well as one National Championships...

So what does "life after Caw-Blade" look like?

From the 2011 China National Championship:

    Blue-Black Control Variants

The China Championship saw four—and three fairly different—Blue-Black Control decks score Top 8 positions. Chen Zhuang will receive the pedigree on account of his win, though, so we will start there.

Chen Zhuang's Blue-Black Control

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Especially Valakut-minded readers will want to take note: Chen's build of Blue-Black Control (and for that matter essentially every blue-based control deck we will look at) run parallel to the Worlds-era builds: Four copies of Tectonic Edge and four copies of Spreading Seas. In addition to mana disruption, Spreading Seas is of course a two-mana cantrip that allows a 26-land deck to operate as if it played 28 lands.

The meat of the deck comes out of, largely, what you might expect: The best cards in black and blue. Four copies of Preordain and four copies of Mana Leak survived the June 20 cullings, and echo the standard Standard Blue-Red-Green numbers (as well as many Caw-Blade counts). Inquisition of Kozilek returns as one of the most efficient options a deck like this can run, allowing Blue-Black to take the teeth out of a beatdown draw or set itself up against another control deck while obtaining near-perfect information.

Chen's version had some key differences relative to other Blue-Black Control decks, including both creature mix and control capabilities / mix:

  • Abyssal Persecutor. The China champ is the only one of the four Top 8 competitors to run this undercosted 6/6 creature. In a world where most players are tapping a retail six mana for their 6/6 creatures, the ability to get the jump on the curve with Abyssal Persecutor is potentially quite attractive. Chen could, for example, tap for this on turn four, clock his opponent, and then play "CounterSliver" with a Mana Leak on turn six, stopping a Titan to hold the lead before reducing his opponent to -2 life points.
  • Something to do with Go for the Throat. The balance between Doom Blade and Go for the Throat leans even more towards the more recent instant with the inclusion of Abyssal Persecutor. With Jace, the Mind Sculptor no longer an option to lift one's own Abyssal Persecutor (getting rid of it for the win), a Blue-Black Control mage needs more. Go for the Throat can target black creatures, and gets the nod here as a four-of; of course Go for the Throat also gets some percentage due to the presence of Spellskite. Spellskite can protect your Deceiver Exarch or Titan from Doom Blade... Not so the four-syllable option.
  • Stoic Rebuttal in the sideboard only. Where other players ran a tighter number of creatures in order to play Stoic Rebuttal, the champion's sat in his sideboard. Instead of Karn Liberated or other slow singletons, Chen did run twice the copies of Liliana Vess main deck. Overall his version of Blue-Black Control seems more interested in mana optimization and seizing the opportunity on temporary advantages than setting up for a really long game.

Other Blue-Black Control decks were fielded by Lu Giachong, Du Xuetong, and Wang Xuanji.

Lu Giachong's Blue-Black Control

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Generally a similar set of general incentives to the above; Lu ran a solo Frost Titan and two copies of Stoic Rebuttal in the main, along with a singleton Jace's Ingenuity. All of these make for potentially superior interactions with other control decks (Frost Titan locking down Grave Titan or Sun Titan; Stoic Rebuttal as a trump to anything; Jace's Ingenuity supplying fuel post-Inquisition of Kozilek from either player); however, the miser's cards do come at a cost. Lu ran only three copies each of Inquisition of Kozilek, Go for the Throat, and Jace Beleren.

Du Xuetong and Wang Xuanji's Blue-Black Control

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Du and Wang played Blue-Black to quite a different angle, though still fairly close to the kind of Blue-Black Control deck we saw pre-bannings (solo copies of Liliana Vess and Karn Liberated for after you have won the attrition war).

The most interesting card main deck has to be Batterskull as kind of a third Titan, but an renewable one with some additional interactions here (you can attach Batterskull to, say, a Creeping Tar Pit). In any case the card is super anti-aggro provided you can hit five mana, and it is nice seeing the inheritor of Baneslayer Angel getting some attention post-Stoneforge Mystic.

What is quite a bit innovative is their sideboard: In a world where most other black-based removal packages are erring on the side of Go for the Throat in order to deal with threats in the light of Spellskite, this pair had not only the deadly Precursor Golem but Peace Strider!

Peace Strider: When you absolutely, positively, need an Obstinate Baloth (but are not green... also they might not be able to kill it).

    Valakut Decks

Gao Tan's Valakut

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Gao played arguably the more conventional Valakut deck of the two Top 8 builds, but his had some heretofore undiscovered 6/7 spice in Chancellor of the Tangle:

Chancellor of the Tangle is the definition of high-risk / high-reward in card selection. It is almost unprecedented in how awesome it can be... but only on the first turn. You can play a Llanowar Elves / Birds of Paradise / Arbor Elf / whatever on the second turn (say after a turn-one Terramorphic Expanse), but Chancellor of the Tangle does what it does best only on the first.

That said, what it does is quite powerful.

The ability to cast the one Joraga Treespeaker despite opening on Terramorphic Expanse takes a lot of the pain out of playing that land in a base-green deck, and turn-one Lotus Cobra, Explore, or Khalni Heart Expedition all make for potentially amazing turns down the line.

As a big-butt fatty, Chancellor of the Tangle isn't exactly your ideal; it costs more and does far, far less than Primeval Titan; and as far as seven-drops go, this Beast isn't quite Avenger of Zendikar on the "put you on a clock" meter. However, having a big butt (specifically 7) allows Chancellor of the Tangle to consistently hold Titans in check with their paltry 6-power stats. With reach, that goes double for Abyssal Persecutor, and vigilance allows the Chancellor to strike back!

Not bad; not bad at all.

Lei Yu Sheng's Valakut

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Lei's spice came from a very different new creature: Urabrask the Hidden.

Lei's only other creatures were Titans, so the advantages that Urabrask can give are all Titan-centric here. Obviously forcing opposing Titans to come in tapped gives Lei the opportunity to crash with his with less (if any) defensive opposition.

But the real high end here is the Titan-haste, which is actually more dramatic than it might seem initially.

  • Inferno Titan: You actually get 3 points when Inferno Titan hits the battlefield and another with the first swing. That is 6 in one turn (before any 6/6 smashie-smashie and / or red mana application), meaning that with Urabrask on the payroll, an Inferno Titan can not only hit for 12-plus damage immediately, it can take out opposing (and / or presumably tapped) Titans and / or Persecutors.
  • Primeval Titan: I used to joke that you basically never lose when you attack with a Primeval Titan (unless you are attacked back with a Primeval Titan), and Urabrask helps ensure that you are attacking with a Primeval Titan. The ability to bring four or even five lands down in one turn gives you quite a bit of potential Valakut setup in addition to your 6/6 crashie-crashie, and really hammers the opponent for options, even when that opponent does live through the turn and / or has a reasonable counter-plan.

In the post-Caw-Blade world, awesomeness potential on Urabrask is high.

    Mono-Black Control

And now for the deck many of you have been clamoring for for months, if not your entire lives!

Li Meng's Mono-Black Control

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Planeswalker (1)
1 Liliana Vess
Instant (5)
2 Dismember 3 Go for the Throat
Artifact (3)
3 Lashwrithe
Land (25)
25 Swamp
60 Cards

Li's Swiss performance was a superb 6-0, in addition to his appearance in the Top 8; this might be the list (or at least the basis for the list) that make many an FNM dream come true.

If articles-response forums are to be believed, we are all excited by the possibility of playing Mono-Black Control. So instead of talking about the potential cool features of playing a mono-black deck, let's look at some of the limitations, and how Li chose to approach them.

The Mana

This is the biggest one. Why mono-black? Why not blue-black (the most common deck in this Top 8) or some other kind of black-something? What is it that being straight black gives you that discourages even playing Tectonic Edge?

  • Phyrexian Obliterator: This card is many things, but flexible is not one of them. Phyrexian Obliterator comes with an unambiguously uncompromising mana cost. This card wants Swamps, and it wants (apparently) twenty-five of them.
  • Lashwrithe: Perhaps the biggest and best reason to go mono-black (really mono-Swamps here). Lashwrithe completes the one-two punch of four-mana threats that this deck can realistically play and most others can't.
  • Gatekeeper of Malakir: At (at full value), Gatekeeper of Malakir is not on the same level as the four-drops, but it is still not the kind of card you can play in most decks.

The Life

Lots of other decks are borrowing black's Dismember as an anti-Deceiver Exarch option. Mono-Black Control obviously gets to run that potentially at three mana, but Sign in Blood is expensive for everyone. That said, running twenty-five Swamps and a ton of expensive threats is a recipe for clunky draws if you can't lower your curve and draw extra cards. Li, however, built his deck to buoy life total and actually race other potentially aggressive decks.

  • Vault Skirge: This card pays for itself, life-wise, by the second attack, and that's if you ran it out on turn one.
  • Vampire Nighthawk: The bane of beatdown, this Vampire can give pause to a Puresteel Paladin and gobble a Glint Hawk... but also trade with a Titan! Vampire Nighthawk is at least worth a burn spell, and even then, better it than me. A couple of hits from this creature can put games completely out of reach for the beatdown, especially when you are following up with the powerful four-drops.

The Sideboard

Single-color decks often suffer in sideboarding, as they lack the ability to interact with every strategy and type of threat. For example, blue can counter spells, while white is superb at removing both creatures and artifacts (sometimes profitably, on either count), which is part of what made Caw-Blade sideboarding so unfair. Straight black can't deal with many types of permanents very well (enchantments and artifacts primarily), but Li went with an eclectic mix of cards that allowed him to go in different directions (like a renewable creature removal option in Black Sun's Zenith), or make particular avenues unattractive (Mimic Vat), or even both at once (Mimic Vat + Skinrender).

This MBC does have some nice options around combo decks (Duress plus Spellskite for, say, Exarch Twin defense) and against powerhouse planeswalkers (you can realistically see Mimic Vat + Vampire Hexmage). I think Mono-Black is a deck we can legitimately see doing well for the rest of the summer.

    White-Blue Control

Rounding out the Top 8 was a now Caw-less and now Blade-less White-Blue deck.

Xu Bin's White-Blue Control

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Like the Blue-Black Control decks, Xu's White-Blue has the land disrupting eight-pack of Tectonic Edge and Spreading Seas. And while it lacks Blue-Black's cheap disruption and fast creature removal, White-Blue—at least as Xu has it laid out—can produce the sauciest battlefield position of any of the decks we've seen so far. Can you imagine...

...all on the battlefield at once, and hiding behind a Leyline of Sanctity?

Amazingly, this deck can actually put that board together!

It has quite a few internally coordinated synergies, but some of them are thin. For example we have the Sun Titan + Wall of Omens, or Sun Titan + Jace Beleren, or the Valakut-stalling Sun Titan + Tectonic Edge one-two punches... but only one Sun Titan (and fewer than four copies of Wall of Omens and Jace Beleren).

It also seems the Venser-enabled "enters the battlefield" subtheme could be more developed... but it is also possible that Xu wanted to have a very eclectic threat mix, preemptively defending against Surgical Extraction.

    It Came from Magic Online

While the China National Championships gave us our first "live" look at post-bannings Standard, Magic Online has been going strong since the end of last month, and has produced some different—and oft-exciting—decks as well.

Here is one from a June 30 Daily 4-0:

Smi77y's Blue-Red-Green (RUG)

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The primary difference between this deck and similar ones you might have seen elsewhere (or in this column, even) is the switch from Fauna Shaman to Nest Invader, as well as a complete non-reliance on Vengevines.

I had a quick chat with Smi77y (the owner of and a member of the Eh Team podcast) about his 4-0 and his deck.

    What did you play against?

I played against a Blue-Black Control, which is probably the deck's hardest matchup; two Mono-Black Midrange/Control with Phyrexian Obliterators (and they definitely didn't obliterate); and a Red Deck Wins. Contrary to popular belief, the list is favored vs. RDW, mainly because I opted out of the Fauna Shaman and went with Nest Invader. Nest Invader saves you a ton of damage and forces them to use removal while you still get a blocker. Plus, the current lists use Baloth main because of the sea of RDW. Post side I just cut all the mana dorks for removal.

    What was great about the deck?

The deck, I think, is strong because it can race any deck. It has a turn-three kill built in (Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin), and that happens from time to time, mostly against unprepared Valakut opponents. Turn one Birds of Paradise, turn two Deceiver Exarch on their upkeep, then turn three Splinter Twin. That, combined with some fairly aggressive cards and an aggressive land destruction package, allow the deck to attack from everywhere; it isn't a dog to any match-up. Birthing Pod just gives the deck some real reach as far as finding the creatures you need (that happen to double up as your disrupting spells). And Exarch when used right is such a powerful card I'd be using it without Splinter Twin...

    What would you change?

With Blue-Black becoming more popular I'm increasing my main-deck Vengevine count. What's fantastic about the deck is it can adapt to the meta. If RDW is that dominant, you can main-deck four Obstinate Baloth. If Blue-Black Control is dominant you can main deck more Vengevines or Thrun, the Last Troll. Right now those two decks are the ones I want to be most prepared for so I have a split of 2/2. Generally speaking the four-drop slot is the "metagame" slot and this was sort of planned for so that it wasn't a one and done deck. I absolutely think it's a viable deck moving forward. And I already have some M12 ideas that will be going into the deck to keep up.

So there you have it: lots of potential options for Standard play until M12 hits, from long-awaited Obliterators, to the "other" Jace, to third-turn kills.

Good luck if you are playing this weekend, whichever path you choose!

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