Rise of the Machines

Posted in Top Decks on December 19, 2014

By Luis Scott-Vargas

Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).

DailyMTG is catching you up on some of the best articles from the past year while our whole crew enjoys the holidays. We’re replaying some of our authors' most popular works and some of your favorites December 15–26, but don’t be surprised if we have a special present or two for you somewhere during the holidays…

But in the meantime, enjoy the best of 2014. Happy Holidays!

The most exciting thing that happened in the world of Constructed Magic last week was definitely the massive change announced by Mark Rosewater. I'm very much looking forward to the new landscape of Standard and really like the direction of all the changes. The second most exciting thing was Grand Prix Kobe, where we got to see a bunch of very interesting Modern decks do well.

Modern is a format that, by definition, rotates less than Standard. And because of how many powerful cards and decks already exist, it's also affected less by the release of new sets. That's part of the appeal: you can tune, play, and learn a deck for months and months. But it also leads to a desire to see new decks make it to the top of the format—a desire that is not always fulfilled.

Enter Shouta Yasooka, Agent of Bolas.

Shouta, Agent of Bolas

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While Shouta didn't make Top 8, he did go 13–2 with this beast. That's obviously an excellent record, and one that has historically made Top 8 (although times are changing). Shouta is well-known for playing blue-black decks, and even made Top 8 with a different Tezzeret deck back in Caw-Blade Standard at Grand Prix Singapore 2011. In fact, it was him, a Boros deck, and six Caw-Blade decks.

This deck looks awesome and has a ton of awesome cards, but what exactly is it trying to do? The four Tezzerets are clearly the main focus, around which there is a pretty wide range of removal, disruption, and card draw. I'd classify this as a proactive control deck, as the combination of Inquisition of Kozilek, Liliana of the Veil, Damnation, spot removal, and Torpor Orb aims to control and disrupt the opponent; while Tezzeret provides a steady stream of card advantage and a win condition all in one card.

Building around Tezzeret has a lot of advantages. The deck gets to play two Mox Opals, which are clearly insane if they are "on" most of the time, and the card selection of Tezzeret lets the deck play a bunch of the best disruptive artifacts at a lower cost than usual. Torpor Orb, Pithing Needle, Spellskite, and Relic of Progenitus are all very strong against the decks they target (mostly Twin, Pod, and Tarmogoyf decks), but don't quite justify themselves main deck without the extra incentives this deck has. Thirst for Knowledge is another one of those incentives, as it's insane in a deck with sufficient artifacts, which this very clearly is.

Even the way the mana base is constructed is a thing of beauty:

4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Mutavault
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darkslick Shores
3 River of Tears
2 Creeping Tar Pit

The remarkable thing about this mana base is how many colorless lands it has and how many of its lands turn into creatures (twelve and ten, respectively). How does Shouta get away with that many colorless lands?

By playing seven Signet/Talismans and two Opals, Shouta can afford to play all the colorless lands, and those colorless lands provide a ton of extra power. Darksteel Citadel ups his artifact count for Opal and Thirst, and combines with Tezzeret to become a 5/5 indestructible (I'm having terrible flashbacks to how my team lost in the Top 4 at GP Portland when I think of an animated Citadel). Mutavault is just an absurdly powerful card, and Blinkmoth Nexus is good on its own and great when Tezzeret makes it into a 5/5 flier. This goes the other direction too, as the reason Shouta can afford to play 9 mana artifacts + 21 lands is because of the Thirst/Tezzeret synergies that justify the mana artifacts and prevent mana flood.

It may seem like I'm making a big deal about the mana base and the artifacts that tap for mana, but understanding how all of these cards fit together is actually incredibly important for deck building. This is a classic synergy deck, where all of the different marginal pieces fit together to create something much stronger than the sum of its parts. Normal decks can't afford to play this many colorless lands or this many artifact mana sources, and can't take advantage of powerful cards like Thirst or Tezzeret. By playing the combination of artifact mana (Darksteel Citadel and Blinkmoth Nexus, Thirst, and Tezzeret... plus a bunch of other situational artifacts that normal decks aren't able to main deck), Shouta has created a machine that depends on all the different parts. A machine that, by all accounts, operates very smoothly.

Darksteel Citadel | Art by John Avon

I've talked a bit about what the deck is trying to do, and a lot about how well-crafted and great it is, but let me describe how it looks like it's trying to play out. It's got a ton of cheap spells and mana accelerants, so the first few turns should be a combination of casting Inquisition of Kozilek, Signets, and spot-removal spells. After that, it drops a Planeswalker: Tezzeret if the board is clear or if it has an artifact untapped to defend itself, or Liliana if there's a creature for her to take care of. Thirst for Knowledge is a Planeswalker substitute if need be, and some games will just feature a ramped–out, turn-four Batterskull or Wurmcoil Engine. After trading more cards, this deck tries to end the game with animated 5/5s (the aforementioned big artifacts) or just a lot of attacks from multiple Mutavaults, Creeping Tar Pits, or Blinkmoth Nexus. I like that Damnation punishes overextending, and Liliana plus all the spot removal punishes playing one creature at once, making opposing creature decks face a bunch of bad choices. Likewise, control decks have a hard time with millions of Planeswalkers and creature lands, and combo decks are vulnerable to all the different one-of artifacts and some of the spot-removal spells (plus Inquisition of Kozilek, of course).

This deck looks awesome, and I'm putting it together on Magic Online so I can start running it through its paces. I've always been a fan of both Shouta and Tezzeret, so any opportunity to play one of his decks is one I've gotta take.

Another winner at Grand Prix Kobe was Burn; it both actually won and placed two copies in the Top 8, which I'd certainly count as a win for the deck. The two decks were built a little differently, but any deck with Goblin Guide and Lava Spike is a Burn deck under any reasonable definition of the archetype, even if one deck had ten creatures and the other deck had fifteen.

Teruya Kakumae's Burn

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Bo Sun's Burn

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It was Teruya Kakumae's creature-heavy list that took home the title, even though Vexing Devil is barely a creature in practice. Both of these decks are pretty simple, although obviously quite effective. Burn takes advantage of the fetch land/shock land mana base that most decks employ, pointing 3-damage spells at the opponent's head until he or she is burned to a crisp. It's easy to dismiss Burn as overly simplistic and, while it's not a deck I personally have any inclination to play, it actually has picked up a lot of powerful tools in recent sets. The combination of Eidolon of Great Revel, Boros Charm, Searing Blood, and Skullcrack gives the deck a lot more reach and resilience than it used to have. Yes, it still has the feel of a deck composed only of Lava Spikes (the archetypal Burn card), but all of these new cards provide a lot of different ways for the deck to threaten opponents. Skullcrack countering lifegain makes it much harder to fight with the most obvious anti-Burn cards, Boros Charm is efficient and has multiple relevant modes, and Searing Blood/Searing Blaze both punish creature decks to a high degree.

Any prospective Burn players should note that Burn is not a deck that performs well when it's anticipated. Even with its new toys, it is a deck that is especially vulnerable to dedicated sideboard cards like Leyline of Sanctity and (given its recent success) more of those cards may be in people's sideboards than before. If you give it a few weeks for things to cool off, this might be a better choice, as it seems to be red-hot right now.

The last deck I want to talk about combines two rather unlikely allies. I did not anticipate seeing a deck that has Ensoul Artifact and Tarmogoyf fighting side by side, but that's exactly what Yuusei Gotou's deck contains. It's an Affinity deck, but it's trimmed all the nonessential cards for a full eight of Goyfs and Ensouls, plus a full eight of Shrapnel Blast and Galvanic Blast. This is not the normal Affinity list by any stretch, and it looks like it plays substantially differently as a result.

Yuusei Gotou's Affinity

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Creature (16)
4 Ornithopter 4 Memnite 4 Vault Skirge 4 Tarmogoyf
Sorcery (2)
2 Thoughtseize
Instant (8)
4 Galvanic Blast 4 Shrapnel Blast
Enchantment (4)
4 Ensoul Artifact
60 Cards

The addition of Ensoul Artifact, Tarmogoyf, and Shrapnel Blast lead to some interesting choices among the other artifacts in the deck. There's an emphasis on 0-cost artifacts, with the full number of Memnites making an appearance, as well as four Chromatic Stars. Star does double duty, as it fixes mana for the increased number of colored spells and sacrifices to make Goyf bigger and Shrapnel Blast less costly. Ensoul Artifact is actually a combo with Tarmogoyf already, as it gives the deck an easy out to get an enchantment in the graveyard. If the Ensoul isn't dealt with, the opponent is probably dead; and if it is, Goyf comes in as a 5/6 without almost any work.

I suspect this has a very different game plan than most Affinity decks. It still has the turn-one Cranial Plating plan available, but will usually be a little less explosive due to all the colored cards. What it loses in explosiveness is made up for in midgame power, as this deck can pump out a steady stream of 5/5s and 5/6s, backed with a lot of disruption. Two Thoughtseizes and eight burn spells make this deck much more interactive than normal and provide it with a fair amount of reach to boot. I like the look of this deck and wonder if it will continue to be awesome as the format evolves. It certainly seems like it was well-positioned for Grand Prix Kobe. And the more I see Ensoul Artifact play out, the more it seems like it should be a four-of in Affinity lists going forward.

I've been mostly living in the world of Vintage when it comes to Constructed, but I anticipate jumping back into both Standard and Modern quite soon. The previews for Khans of Tarkir start this weekend at PAX, and that will definitely get me back into Standard. And I think Shouta Yasooka's deck may be enough to pull me back into Modern, despite there not being any particular Modern event coming up for me.


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