A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That

Posted in Top Decks on May 6, 2010

By Mike Flores

So last weekend was the start of a new Standard Pro Tour Qualifier cycle with Rise of the Eldrazi. We also had a couple of big cash tournaments from Star City Games.com and TCGPlayer.com, basically lots of stuff going on, all different kinds of decks winning ...

... and barely any Jund.

Not zero Jund, mind you, but if week one is much indication, I don't see Sprouting Thrinax and company dumping black, green, and red paint all over the metagame as many feared.

Meet the new boogeyman:

Phil Napoli's White-Blue Control

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This version of White-Blue Control is like—but not exactly like—any of the white-blue decks we looked at last week, or previously. It has some Tap-Out to it—particularly the Everflowing Chalices into big creatures—but has eschewed the Knight of the White Orchid engine for Wall of Omens (the basis for most white defensive decks now that Rise of the Eldrazi is legal). You'll notice that while this isn't a "permission" deck, it does have some counterspells. One strategy is to pass on a turn two Everflowing Chalice, tap four for it turn four, and then play a Baneslayer Angel turn five with counterspell backup. As with most successful blue decks in Standard, Phil's deck is built on a Spreading Seas base to help smooth draws and defend against Jund; Spreading Seas is the only blue four-of in the list.

Phil is one of the good men of the NY/NJ area, despite working for Goldman Sachs. He is the kind of guy who gets a hundred high fives on Facebook upon winning the first PTQ of the season, and each and every one is much deserved.

He is also the kind of person to share the wisdom of the win, so gather 'round:

1. Unlike some of the other decks we will look at this week, Phil didn't play Gideon Jura; the reason is that there are too many situations where Baneslayer Angel can either win on the spot or steal a game where Gideon will not. Baneslayer Angel actually puts the opponent under pressure to have an answer RIGHT NOW, and—by now most of us know this—hands players free wins.

2. Phil was very happy with Deprive. It does not give players as much of an edge in the mirror as Ajani Vengeant (see below), but it does set up an edge. Principally, Deprive can rescue Celestial Colonnade from Spreading Seas. Deprive is not a desirable early game play, but is flexible—even advantageous—in long games.

3. Surprisingly, Phil doesn't like Wall of Omens as much as everybody else. He only lost games due to mana issues, and as such, may be going back to a Knight of the White Orchid / Fieldmist Borderpost engine.

4. Phil beat a wide variety of decks ... Jund (3), Bant Conscription, Vampires, Grixis Control, White-Blue Control, and Polymorph; he felt that having counterspells was instrumental in beating a wide variety of decks (rather than a true Tap-Out strategy).

5. Unlike yours truly, Phil loves a Sphinx of Jwar Isle. It is a planeswalker trump that forces opponents to keep in Day of Judgment (or whatever) after sideboarding.

6. DON'T BOARD OUT DAY OF JUDGMENT AGAINST JUND (just because they have Sprouting Thrinax). Every Siege-Gang Commander is "backbreaking," and you have to have an answer to Malakir Bloodwitch.

7. "Mind Spring is one of the best cards in the format and I could not see not playing it."

8. Phil actually played in a Grand Prix Trial the next day and lost in the finals with this configuration:

Phil Napoli's White-Blue Control

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He played the same main deck but cut beloved Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre (never cast it over the PTQ).

I played a GPT the next day and lost in finals. Same maindeck. SB: +1 Gideon -1 Ulamog +1 Jace Beleren -1 Path -1 DOJ +1 Elspeth

[...] In summary, I wanted to play a consistent control deck. I had a good understanding of the other decks, and when you have that it allows you to excel with control. Usually control is bad in early meta, but this control is exceptional as the cards are so powerful that your deck doesn't need to be highly tweaked to a meta in order to win.

Phil mentioned Ajani Vengeant in the context of white-blue decks as a way to get an advantage in the "mirror"; as of this weekend past, there are at least two stripes of Red-White-Blue Control decks that are complicating the White-Blue side of the metagame.

Tom Kar Yung's White-Blue Control, Splashing Red

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Kar's deck is basically a White-Blue Tap-Out deck that cuts the creatures—the non-Wall of Omens creatures anyway—for a planeswalker-based offense. The deck was designed to hold most of the advantages of the default white-blue deck, but to dominate the "mirror" thanks to Ajani Vengeant; an unanswered Ajani will of course prove lethal for most control players.

Some important differences between this deck and stock White-Blue cards to date:

    Scepter of Dominance

You'll notice that this deck doesn't play Path to Exile. Scepter of Dominance forces creature opponents deeper and deeper into commitment to the battlefield, where Kar's White-Blue, Splashing Red can sweep up the mess with its, you know, six-odd sweepers. This card is excellent against other control decks, tapping down Celestial Colonnade after the opponent has paid down a ton of mana; plus it can guarantee that you win the Baneslayer Angel race. It is also the "Path to Exile" that can deal with any Eldrazi giant, even ones that have protection from colored spells. Speaking of Eldrazi giants ...

    Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre

I wanted to play some Eldrazi giant and convinced anyone who would listen that it was right to play a singleton Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre in the sideboard (Phil even had one in his!). Why is it right? Well, for one thing, the White-Blue Control mirrors will go long ... but not necessarily fifteen mana long (even with Everflowing Chalices). That makes Emrakul, the Aeons Torn perhaps a little bit profligate. Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre is the next best option; a hard-cast Ulamog is not an auto-win the same way a hard-cast Emrakul is, but the one big thing that Ulamog has going for it is the ability to take out a loyalty-laden Jace, the Mind Sculptor even if it is countered. And if it is countered, great! Your deck is juiced and you can deck your opponent anyway. Kozilek, Butcher of Truth is a distant third for our purposes; it is not particularly resilient and drawing four cards isn't going to save you if the opponent is about to go ultimate.

In addition to playing trump over other White-Blue Control-ish decks, the Eldrazi giants make for great long game weapons against any midrange creature or control decks, viz. mono-white Emeria, the Sky Ruin types. Not so subtly, they are exactly what you want against these fancy Howling Mine and/or Archive Trap decks. If the opponent doesn't have a card set up to specifically deal with an Eldrazi giant's shuffling trigger, you can give any such deck depletion opponents quite a headache.

Kar was kind enough to share his thoughts on the deck, and its place in the metagame.

1. He hasn't tested extensively with Gideon Jura yet, but points out that one of the main ways his Red-White-Blue can deal with Gideon (Game 1) is to keep him tapped with Ajani Vengeant ... the problem is that the Laskin deck (see below) has just as many Ajanis as Kar's version of Red-White-Blue. However, it only has one Mountain, so an opportune Spreading Seas can often guarantee "Ajani advantage." That said, even if you can keep Gideon in check (at least theoretically) with Ajani Vengeant or Scepter of Dominance, Gideon's "plus" ability can keep Celestial Colonnade off the other planeswalkers.

2. There were essentially no Vampires decks in the PTQ Kar played in; that means no Mind Sludges. With no Mind Sludges, even the one Cancel is less relevant. On balance, Polymorph won that tournament, and Cancel is obviously useful in that matchup.

3. In contrast to Phil's experience, Kar found Wall of Omens to be great! It was particularly good against the multiple Devastating Summons Mono-Red decks he beat. One thing he noted was that Banefire (the original third X-spell before I realized that Everflowing Chalice is also an X-spell) would be a reasonable anti-White-Blue Control kill card. Any time you can cast Ulamog, you can Banefire for 10 and win outright.

4. Kar beat Mono-Red twice, Mythic three times (one Conscription), and drew twice. His Jund record was 1-1, with the loss sadly in the quarterfinals. According to Kar, the only way you can realistically lose to Mythic is if you let them play a Sovereigns of Alara into an Eldrazi Conscription, bashing you for 10 or more. So, recognize that, plan accordingly, and don't let them execute.

The other Red-White-Blue Control deck—and probably the one with more fanfare given its victorious pedigree—was played by Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Ben Stark and Star City Games $5K winner Lewis Laskin:

Ben Stark's American Gladiators

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Lewis Laskin's Red-White-Blue Planeswalker Control

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Laskin beat Stark in the Top 4 of the Atlanta $5K tournament, before taking down the dominant Alex Bertoncini's Jund in the finals.

The Laskin-style Red-White-Blue Planeswalker Control is quite different from Kar's Red-White-Blue Control, despite sharing both colors and strategy. The deck eschews the Everflowing Chalice engine, and arguably the deck's strongest card—Mind Spring—in favor of just more planeswalkers. Despite dipping into red, it plays no Lightning Bolts.

The single biggest structural difference (besides replacing Mind Spring with Divination) is the presence of Gideon Jura, a card that was deliberately not played by either Phil Napoli's straight White-Blue Control deck or Kar's look at Red-White-Blue Planeswalkers. Gideon Jura does something in a Planeswalker-dedicated deck that you might not have noticed initially. Because Gideon Jura can taunt opposing creatures into attacking him, he simultaneously keeps those attackers off of all the other planeswalkers; as such, each other planeswalker on the battlefield can continue to accumulate loyalty (or even help control the board with Unsummons, Lightning Helixes, or blocking) while Gideon Juraalso protects your life total.

Another way to attack the boogeyman "mirror" is to go Esper rather than Red-White-Blue. Traditionally speaking control "mirrors" are typically won by either 1) the mono-blue deck (if there is one in the fight) or 2) the control deck with the most colors. I know this seems at odds (with itself even); the mono-blue deck typically has more counterspells to answer the opponent's threats, plus instant-speed card drawing ... Otherwise the deck with more colors has more options and more angles to attack (just think about how a Quick 'n Toast deck could "splash" to play an instant-speed Cloudthresher to either resolve on the opponent's end step or tap his mana so you could main phase a Cruel Ultimatum).

Gerard Fabiano went that other mirror-breaking direction, adding black rather than red:

Gerard Fabiano's Esper Control

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This deck obviously has some fancy bells and whistles that you don't see on the everyday white-blue model ...

    Iona, Shield of Emeria

Straight up, or via Rise from the Grave.

    Liliana Vess (and Mind Rot)

An unchecked Liliana Vess is trouble for a control deck ... kind of like the Disrupting Scepters Brian Weissman used to dominate this game fifteen years ago, but without the ongoing mana commitment. Mind Rot is a discard spell without the commitment, a reasonable compliment to ...

    Esper Charm

Just about the best thing you can do with three mana in Standard, at least in these colors. Both the "two card" abilities are relevant during most games, and there will even be some times (like against a turn two Luminarch Ascension) that the "Disenchant"-like third ability keeps you safe and warm at night.

The more powerful mirror-breaking cards are in the sideboard: Duress is a classic that can help force through other spells against permission, or remove cards like Mind Spring or a key Planeswalker from the opponent's hand before he can play them. Haunting Echoes is just your Ultimatum; the goal is to play it and win on the spot.

Speaking of Ultimatums, Gerard's wasn't the only Esper deck in the Top 8 of last weekend's TCGPlayer $5K in Boston.

Alex Viksnins's Brilliant Esper

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This is the deck that is most pushing my "I want to go build that and try it out" buttons, most yanking at my "right now, Right Now, RIGHT NOW" levers. Go ahead and read Brilliant Ultimatum. That's right. Brilliant Ultimatum into Emrakul, the Aeons Torndoes work that way. Fact or Filthy, if you ask me.

The rest of the deck works mostly like the similar decks: planeswalkers for offense, card drawing (including the incomparable Esper Charm) and creature elimination for the rest. Did I mention the Brilliant Ultimatums into Eldrazi giants? They're, you know, brilliant.

Meanwhile (and because we're doing everything in pairs this week), at least two different looks at Zvi Mowshowitz's Mythic took home Blue Envelopes as well, both the "classic" and "Eldrazi Conscription" versions.

Lauren Lee's Mythic

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Lauren "Mulldrifting" Lee couldn't make it to the New York PTQ that Phil Napoli won, so she decided to hitch a ride to the Boston PTQ the next day, in what I believe was only her second ever PTQ.

Mulldrifting's Misers:

    Gideon Jura

Her "fifth Baneslayer Angel" and an upgrade to Sphinx of Jwar Isle.

    Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Takes the place of one Rafiq of the Many. Less damage, maybe, but trades off with evasion. A serious threat, long term, for White-Blue Control decks and a legitimate answer to Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Speaking of which ...

    Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Lauren doesn't actually like this card in Mythic; she used it largely to Unsummon non-Wall of Omens / Bloodbraid Elf blockers. A fine answer to Eldrazi giants, in particular out of Polymorph decks.

    Dauntless Escort

"It's like a Negate on a 3/3 body." Dauntless Escort is of course a great answer to Day of Judgment-type effects; she even played extra (first one took the place of a Rhox War Monk which is "hella useless" against White-Blue Control decks).

Matt Sperling's Mythic Conscription

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Matt made a similar change in his Eldrazi Conscription version, moving Dauntless Escort to the main as a four-of, cutting all the Rhox War Monks. This was a concession to White-Blue Control (our new boogeyman), but also a fine move in a fair number of other matches.

So which is the superior version of Mythic, classic or Eldrazi-style? Sperling makes an interesting argument. If you lay out two Mythic decks against each other, the Rafiq of the Many / Finest Hour version can be chump-blocked. The matching big boom-booms Sovereigns of Lost Alara + Eldrazi Conscription lead to a dead opponent. The other Mythic deck can't necessarily block very well due to the trample on Eldrazi Conscription, and over multiple attacks, annihilator kicks in and then kicks down the door.

The dominant White-Blue Control deck was addressed with Negate and Deprive (the fifth Negate) ... because Negate is just that damn good against control.

Thomas Ma's Grixis

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This is another strategy that I can't wait to try!

Grixis has a tremendous advantage over White-Blue Control, in Game 1 especially (Blightning is awesome as usual; Cruel Ultimatum usually resolves). It still has Spreading Seas to disrupt the Jund. I have long had a soft spot for that Blightning / Countersquall all-gold all-facekicking set of cards. Staggershock is a great new card that is like a cross between a Rift Bolt and a Char with no collateral damage. You can use it to deal 4 to the opponent (like a Char) or 2 damage to two different creatures. Staggershock is on a time delay like a Rift Bolt, but if you cast Staggershock on the opponent's end step, that will only matter when you can't take out a high toughness creature with Flame Slash.

We probably can't finish a Standard article without at least mentioning Jund. Jund was, after all, the winner of the TCGPlayer.com Boston $5K tournament, with numerous other Top 8 finishes in PTQs or other events.

Josh Herr's Jund

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Josh Herr's deck is a good representative, I think, of the current crop of Jund decks. This is a deck very much in the vein of "all lands, no removal." Herr played 27 lands and no Bituminous Blasts (or other expensive removal).

The rest of the deck is just good threats (Putrid Leech) or card advantage (Blightning) or both (Bloodbraid Elf, Broodmate Dragon, Siege-Gang Commander, Sprouting Thrinax) ... Okay, mostly "both."

Jund is a deck long on card power, with one of the best offensive two drops of all time, into Blightning, sometimes into a second Blightning off a Bloodbraid Elf. The main thing holding the Jund deck in check is the Blue card Spreading Seas (you'll note that most of the controlling Blue decks played four). Almost half the Jund deck's lands come into play tapped at least some of the time. That means they can be "kept down" as fake Islands. Because the Jund mana requirements are so strict (look at Putrid Leech or Sprouting Thrinax), a Spreading Seas will often be worse than a Stone Rain.

I certainly enjoyed reviewing so many great, and different, decks this week. Thanks to everyone who did well, and good luck to everyone looking to do well this weekend!

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