Six Caw-Blade, One Aside, and 32 Preordains

Posted in Top Decks on August 11, 2011

By Mike Flores

Brian David-Marshall: How did you like the Azure Mages in LSV's sideboard?

Azure Mage is kinda sorta a perfect card.

Azure Mage is a 2-power beater for two mana. Anybody who is anybody (Meddling Mage, Dark Confidant, Voidmage Prodigy, etc.) packs 2 power into two mana, along with a relevant special ability (Wild Mongrel in Green-Blue Madness, Gaea's Skyfolk in Miracle Grow, or Ironclaw Orcs in the original Sligh deck... wouldn't want to accidentally block). This is known.

The unlikely Azure Mage has the power to transform the tone of a game or match-up.

First and foremost, Azure Mage is a 2/1 for two, so it can put on the beats. If you're positioning yourself, say, against a control deck as a control deck, the fact that there is a 2/1 on the battlefield on turn two can be tremendously challenging. If you were anticipating an aggressive deck, that would be one thing, but what are you supposed to do if your deck is set up for White-Blue? When are you supposed to tap? How many beats for 2 are you supposed to take?

Just getting in for damage can be great. As we've said, anyone who's anyone, ever, has been some kind of 2/X attacker for two mana; and there's a reason for that. "Bears" put pressure on opponents and create situations where the opponent is losing mana and options. What is great about Azure Mage is that, come turn four, it generates more options for you.

As we've hinted at already, there may be no good play for an opponent being pressured by Azure Mage. "Oh well." Maybe you have a one-turn window; maybe you don't have a relevant card because your hand is full of spells that are supposed to combat Gideon Jura. Is your most realistic option really turn four? Against 3+ Mana Leaks and 2+ Spell Pierces? Might want to look up the definition of most realistic there. If you are doing nothing and biding your time, come four mana, Azure Mage is going to do what distinguishes Azure Mage (you know, the thing Dark Confidant was already doing, and not for four mana), exactly.

Azure Mage really seems like a perfect Magic card.

Two-power two-drop: Check.

Relevant ability: Check.

Not grossly overpowered: Check.

Seems ingenious when someone actually plays it?

I think that is the most wondrous thing about Azure Mage, and part of the reason I so admire its recent inclusion in the US Nationals Top 8 deck lists. Lots of us have talked about how much we like Azure Mage, but no one—no one until Luis, Ochoa, Owen, and company that is—had the Stone(forge)s to actually run one. Azure Mage is great because it is opportunistic, and requires a pinch of bravery. Azure Mage last weekend was a sign of banished indecision and good positioning; no, it was not a "main deck" card (at least not so far, nor in the decks it actually appeared), but a lot of really high-impact stuff is initially relegated to sideboard real estate. No harm there.

Aside on Sideboarding in General

One thing many players fail to realize is that sideboard games are statistically more important than regular games.

Imagine your matches generally reach reasonable conclusion (that is, you don't accumulate a rampant number of draws). In each match you will play a Game 1... and you will play a Game 2 (sideboarded). However in some matches, you will also play a Game 3 (which is also sideboarded). Ergo over the course of a tournament you will generally play more sideboarded matches than Game 1s.

Having powerful, effective, or somewhat unexpected sideboard cards (like Azure Mage) can give you an edge during these generally more significant games.

End Aside

Yes, yes... The consensus best player in the United States played two copies of Azure Mage in his US Nationals Top 8 deck list. How about the other 73?

Luis Scott Vargas's Caw-Blade

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Not to spoil the ending overmuch, but there were six total Caw-Blade decks in the Top 8, and half of those were of the same mold as Luis's list. David Ochoa ran the same 75, and Owen Turtenwald ran one fewer Scalding Tarn, and one more Spell Pierce.

The ChannelFireball crew, which in this Top 8 included Player of the Year standout Turtenwald and US Nationals finalist Ochoa played what can nominally be called "Caw-Blade" but incorporated a number of specific alterations and innovations. Among them:

How about the rest of the Top 8's Caw-Blade representatives?

Haibing Hu's Caw-Blade

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Quite a similar deck to the ChannelFireball lists discussed above; Hu played one fewer Dismember in his main deck, and had Torpor Orb in the side.

Brandon Nelson's Caw-Blade

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Nelson dissented from the "mean" in quite a few places. His creature configuration was quite a bit different... only two Consecrated Sphinxes but two Sun Titans. Brandon echoed Hu's respect for Deceiver Exarch with a pair of Spellskites in the sideboard. Obviously Torpor Orb is a different card from Spellskite; one can hose a number of different "enters the battlefield" creature strategies, while the other blocks on the ground, can hose Poison's pump, etc.

Noah Koessel's Caw-Blade

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Noah's deck was (again) quite a bit different: different creature configuration main deck with Spellskites, third Sword, and second main deck Jace. While he (like most Caw-Blade players) ran the full four Timely Reinforcements, only one copy made its way into the main.

Caw-Blade in the post–Jace, the Mind Sculptor Standard era is a bit of a different beast than Caw-Blade at its height. The mulligan decisions are different; current Caw-Blade only has one kind of nuts two-mana offensive creature (though Squadron Hawk remains awfully good). If you want to equip a Sword, you need to spend the full five mana to cast and equip it (though if you get a hit in with it, you will typically more than make that action up).

Generally, Caw-Blade has the ability to play aggro-control (creature, possibly Sword up, defending the lead with countermagic backup)... but it can also play a kind of true control. All these decks play a variety of planeswalkers, so they can go planeswalker control, especially leaning on two or three copies of Gideon Jura per deck as defense. While none of them specialized in defense in particular, Day of Judgment was a part of all their sorcerous vocabularies. Expect access to this breaker if you are thinking about swarming the table.

The Top 8 in total:

James McLeod's Pyromancer Ascension

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The printing of Gitaxian Probe promised to bring with it a new age of Pyromancer Ascension, and the reprinting of Ponder in Magic 2012 simply solidified that possibility.

Pyromancer Ascension in 2012 lacks the capacity for infinite turns (or infinite anything) based on how James configured his deck, but the huge number of cheap draw spells—Gitaxian Probe, Preordain, Ponder, and maybe even See Beyond—helps the deck put two counters on Pyromancer Ascension and get a critical mass of cards once that key enchantment is online.

From that point, winning is relatively simple. Every spell you run—say a Preordain—doubles up by itself, so one-mana draw spells turn into major-league digging and card advantage, and Lightning Bolt and Burst Lightning become lethal very quickly (it doesn't take too many turns once your Burst Lightnings start hitting for 8).

I mentioned previously the presence of Consecrated Sphinx. One of the potential problems with Pyromancer Ascension is that configured like this, it is very dependent on actually having the Ascension in play. Especially in sideboarded games, keeping Ascension on the table is anything but automatic. Celestial Purge, Vampire Hexmage, even Nature's Claim can make winning... inconvenient.

Say the opponent left in Oblivion Ring (one of the relatively few main-deck-able cards that can interact with a Pyromancer Ascension). If that same opponent wants to apply the Ring to Consecrated Sphinx, it's going to mean shipping you two cards first... and you are playing a deck with Into the Roil!

Last but clearly not least in the Top 8 was "engine maker" Ali Aintrazi with Blue-Black Control.

Ali was previously known from the Open Series for producing big finishes with Green-Blue TurboLand exploiting Jace, the Mind Sculptor + Oracle of Mul Daya at a powerful four; Grand Architect featuring four Thrummingbirds, and winning an Open the last weekend of Stoneforge Mystic legality with Twin Blade.

This past weekend he extended his abilities from green-blue and red-white-blue to Blue-Black Control:

Ali Aintrazi's Caw-Blade

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This build of Blue-Black Control echoes some earlier lists (a mix of planeswalkers, but tops up on Karn Liberated), with light countermagic and several different flavors of creature removal... but it has some newer features as well.

Solemn Simulacrum very much fills the "Jace, the Mind Sculptor" slot in this deck. It costs four mana, helps Ali get a bit ahead on cards, and can defend the battlefield, if not decisively. Solemn Simulacrum is well known for the four-to-six, allowing Blue-Black Control decks to go straight from four mana to a place where Wurmcoil Engine, Consecrated Sphinx, and Grave Titan are fifth-turn possibilities.

Ali played a few unusual cards in his sideboard (the total mix included eleven different spells); some of them bear a mention:

So... What next?

It seems pretty clear that Caw-Blade is going to continue to prove an über-popular deck despite the recent bannings. Karn Liberated's Blue-Black Control, on the radar via Gerard Fabiano and Reid Duke since approximately the event in NYC (prior to the bannings), is going to pick up in popularity if simply because of Ali's win.

Preordain continues to help people draw lands early and spells late. Make sure that you can handle two Consecrated Sphinxes, because just about everyone has a pair nowadays.

My up next is the Championship in Chicago, Illinois this weekend, where Brian David-Marshall and I take advantage of some good play and better luck earlier in the year to trade in our usual roles for a little actual spell-slinging. Wish us luck!

(we're going to need it)

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