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First among Equals

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The letter T!he States and Champs tournaments were last week, and if my experience is any indication across the country, they were pretty awesome (no big surprise there). States is my favorite tournament, because it breaks the ground for the rest of the year and shows us what the new large set is capable of ... and even though my personal performance this year was a little disappointing (out on breakers in a nine-way tie for the coveted last spot in the Top 8), I can't really complain; one too many lands come into play tapped and you lose to the red deck! It is known. Sure would have been nice to pick up another plaque, though.

But like I said, I can't complain. I didn't even play Cryptic Command!

Here is the deck I played, which was more than a little inspired by Marijn Lybaert's Top 8 deck from Pro Tour–Hollywood:

Mike Flores's Jund Mana Ramp
Top 16, 2008 New York State Championship


So why did I play this deck?

In a roundabout way of answering that question, I am pretty sure this is a trap:

It's a ... well, you know.

Yeah, it's a complete and utter trap!

A year ago ... not so much. Nine times out of ten, the opponent taps out for a two-for-one on five, you answer with your two-for-one on four and count yourself up a land.

Today?

It might get you killed.

The problem? The really annoying problem? You won't be killed for another ten turns.

I spent a fair amount of time testing Standard, and during the aforementioned testing—beyond the realization that the red deck and its descendent Blightning Beatdown are as good and fun to play as they are—led me to conclude that whether or not you choose to play Cruel Ultimatum, the vast majority of Five-Color Control mirrors come down to specifically that card.

You see, neither deck in a Five-Color Control mirror is typically going to break any land speed records, so the games will drag to the point that someone draws and is able to successfully play the Ponza-esque, pricey Cruel Ultimatum. The opponent now has a problem. But does he or she have the solution? The solution, over 66% of the time in Game 1 situations, is Cryptic Command. But if you "wasted" your Cryptic Command on ultimately pointless (pointless in the sense that they are not Cruel Ultimatums that you actually have to answer) Stage Two threats or card advantage, then, when on the receiving end of this most dastardly of sorceries... You typically lose and go home. Yet it might be another three turns (or more!) before the formalities are up.

So not surprisingly, the first counter-strategy I came up with was simply to not play my Cryptic Commands, and instead wait patiently for turn seven or eight (stupid Vivid Creek) to roll around. Ha ha! You pay seven, I pay four; I draw a card....

That lasted for a little while until the Cruel Ultimatum opponents figured out that they could hold Negate and simply wait for nine mana before busting me. Nine mana? Really? How positively Psychatog. But yes, there was a counter-strategy.

I could hold my Bant Charm and counter their Negate, and then my Cryptic Command would be safe (again), plus one card for me. So basically, in order to outmaneuver a nine-mana two-card sequence, I had to hold back seven myself (if not eight for double Cryptic Command)....

Do you see the ever-eroding problem here?

This got to be increasingly annoying, especially in sideboarded games. The Cruel Ultimatum players figured out quickly that they had every color of mana available thanks to Vivid Creek, Reflecting Pool, and especially Vivid Grove, and took the opportunity to sideboard Guttural Response (or simply wait until they had a Vexing Shusher in play). Do you know how amazing Guttural Response is? It is a Swiss Army Knife of Standard tempo, trading for something like fourteen of the opponent's tap attempts with Cryptic Command, Charms, and defensive spells ... and of course in this example it is a very difficult to stop counter-countermeasure that makes Cruel Ultimatum that much easier to resolve proactively.

So rather than frustrate myself with endless Five-Color Control mirror matches (I have stated in previous columns how Five-Color Control was the most commonly played deck on Magic Online that I faced), I figured out a deck that could adequately battle the metagame as a whole, but was particularly effective against Five-Color Control; and at States, I played and beat two Five-Color Control decks.

The deck itself is what my old teammate Paul Jordan used to call "deceptively card advantageous" when we tested the Beasts deck with cards like Call of the Herd and Beast Attack against control. The Jund Mana Ramp has so many cards that generate card and mana advantage, help ensure a steady stream of land drops, and so on; it is almost all two-for-ones. Combined with Rampant Growth (and to a smaller degree Farhaven Elf), that allowed the deck to stay competitive with the more powerful Five-Color Control decks.

Game 1 is usually a mash-up of attrition and race, but it is easy to see why the deck performs in sideboarded games. I simply borrowed a feather from the Five-Color Control players' caps and played a faster "Cruel Ultimatum" sequence strategy substituting Mind Shatter + Guttural Response (but bolstered by mana acceleration, and typically riding the back of a test-spelled Cloudthresher) for their seven-mana sorcery.

And it all worked out pretty well, if not quite good enough for Top 8.

You might be asking yourself why we just spent so much time on a deck that didn't even make Top 8.

The answer is that ... I'm stalling!

Unfortunately, we don't have results from all over the country yet, so I thought I'd open this one up from a little bit of a personal angle, and introduce a potential rogue option at the same time. I liked the deck quite a bit, and it is quite competitive with Faeries, Five-Color Control, and the Red Decks.

Credit where credit's due: Broodmate Dragons were suggested to me by our Storyteller Evan Erwin and they were fantastic. I wanted a card to help contain Demigod of Revenge, and Broodmate Dragon fit that role nicely in this deck, plus ended up my most Primal Commanded-for creatures overall.

Now while I don't have all the State Championships results yet, my good friend Don Lim (yes that Don Lim, "Evil" Don Lim, "Replenish" Don Lim) kindly furnished the New York Top 8 deck lists, care of Gray Matter Productions:

Five-Color Control
One Win, 1 Top 8
Faeries
3 Top 8
Kithkin
2 Top 8
Blightning Beatdown
1 Top 8

Five-Color Control

Five-Color Control is probably the second most important deck coming out of this year's U.S. State Championships. It is/was/should be either the most popular or second most popular strategy in Standard; both of the Top 8 decks from New York would be what we call Quick 'n Toast or Cruel Control decks, but if you group all of the disparate "Five-Color Control" decks—that is, decks with Reflecting Pool, Mulldrifter, and Cryptic Command together regardless of whether they have Reveillark or Cruel Ultimatum or Rhox War Monk as their point of differentiation from the others—I think they should be, solidly, the most popular as a cohort.

In New York, the top-finishing Five-Color Control deck was pretty straightforward. Stephen Carpenter's list has only the one Cruel Ultimatum and no Guttural Response or Vexing Shusher to go proactive in the mirror ... but his finish needs no explanation.

Stephen Carpenter's Five-Color Control
Winner, 2008 New York State Championship


Anthony Milio played what is pretty close to the Platonic ideal of the pre-States "Cruel Control" version of Five-Color Control.

Anthony Milio's Five-Color Control
Quarterfinalist, 2008 New York State Championship


In particular, we see the Stage Three configuration of two Cruel Ultimatums and a Nucklavee (the latter serving as a conduit for the recycling of one of the former, and ultimately vice-versa with the right blocks or suicides). If another deck lets Milio's deck get to the point where it can start playing seven mana spells, it had better have some good way to stop Cruel Ultimatum, because that is officially what the game is going to be about.

I really like the Makeshift Mannequins in this deck. Of course their primary target is usually an evoked Mulldrifter, but Kitchen Finks, Cloudthresher, and Nucklavee all have significant contributions to make the second time around (I have personally never seen a Makeshift Mannequin resolve on a Nucklavee, but I can only assume that it is the universal symbol of victory).

Kithkin

Nicholas Feitel's Kithkin Culcano
Finalist, 2008 New York State Championship


Notable in this version of the Kithkin beatdown deck is the complete absence of Mirrorweave and the inclusion of not just Elspeth, Knight-Errant but Rise of the Hobgoblins! I was very curious about Elspeth, but Nick and Christian Calcano (this deck's designer) indicated that Elspeth is the superior planeswalker in terms of winning the mirror. I could not argue, with Knight of Meadowgrain going to the air and enacting a 10-point life swing on another white deck.

Rise of the Hobgoblins is better than it might look. It is a pretty efficient token producer, mana-wise. But even if you get all of your creatures killed—as Kithkin is liable to do—Rise of the Hobgoblins leaves you with a relevant ability. A first-striking, 5-power Cloudgoat Ranger is awfully hard to block.

The "hole" in this deck, if there is one, is its vulnerability to sweepers like Jund Charm and Firespout in Game 1. All of Nick's Burrenton Forge-Tenders are in the sideboard. Sure, they can protect the squad over Games 2 and 3, but this strategy has no interest in an opposing mass removal spell.

Josh Harris's Kithkin
Quarterfinalist, 2008 New York State Championship


Josh Harris also played newcomer Elspeth, Knight-Errant; but consider his other new four-mana spell: Ranger of Eos. Josh's Rangers can pick up offensive superstar Figure of Destiny ... or one of his three-plus-one copies of Burrenton Forge-Tender. Remember what we talked about regarding Nick's potential exposure against red removal? Josh's deck does not have as much of a problem.

Blightning Beatdown

James White's Blightning Beatdown
Semifinalist, 2008 New York State Championship


James White snuck into the Top 8 at 6-2 with his Blightning Beatdown deck.

This deck is a little bit different from the version we looked at last week ... I'd say it is basically a Demigod Deck Wins deck playing Blightning, but James also ran Murderous Redcap, which is very unusual for a beatdown deck in the main.

He seemed to have a lot of respect for Kitchen Finks. Two-drop of choice: Stigma Lasher. On top of that? Puncture Blast starting. But the really differentiating thing about this list, at least in the main, is Unwilling Recruit. You do not want to be the green deck trying to beat this deck by tapping out for a large, ostensibly frightening blocker to keep James out of the Red Zone. He is just going to brain you with your own man.

James made the most of the black splash out of his sideboard. A lot of Red Decks have problems with Kithkin (we saw eight Burrenton Forge-Tenders and two Rangers of Eos out of the last two decks), so with his Graven Cairns tapping for Black ManaBlack Mana, James added Infest for the little white army. Take that, Spectral Procession! (Untap, Demigod you.)

First Among Equals

If you look at our New York State Championships breakdown, above, you will see that the Fae were the most populous archetype in the Top 8, being three out of eight. Here are the New York Top 8 Faeries deck lists:

Dan Jordan's Faeries
Semifinalist, 2008 New York State Championship


Anthony Conta's Faeries
Quarterfinalist, 2008 New York State Championship


All these decks played Jace Beleren, either in the main deck or in the sideboard. Jace isn't quite the lost Ancestral Vision, but he is a powerful card drawing machine that can be a very serious problem for certain decks, in particular creature-poor versions of the Five-Color Control strategy.

Agony Warp looks to be shaping up to be the most important new card for the Fae. It provides a tool that can slow down the Red Deck—possibly generating card advantage—and can be instrumental in an uphill battle in the mirror when the bad guys have Bitterblossom and you ... um ... don't.

How do I know this?

In addition to the New York Top 8, I was lucky enough to secure some time with the newly-minted Pennsylvania State Champion, Brett Blackman!

Brett battled his way through the maximum number of Fae mirrors in the Top 8 in Pennsylvania... which would make our blue-and-grey boxes look a little something like this (albeit over only twelve decks):

Faeries
1 Win, 6 Top 8
Five-Color Control
1 Win, 1 Top 8
Kithkin
2 Top 8
Blightning Beatdown
1 Top 8

Here is Brett's Pennsylvania State Championship-winning deck list:

Brett Blackman's Faeries
Winner, 2008 Pennsylvania State Championship


After the tournament (and admitting that he simply couldn't find a fourth Agony Warp), Brett proposed the following changes, all to the sideboard:

-1 Loxodon Warhammer
-2 Razormane Masticore
-2 Puppeteer Clique

+1 Infest
+1 Shriekmaw
+2 Negate
+1 Agony Warp

As we have discussed on numerous occasions, the roughest matchup for the Fae is the red deck. Brett indicates that this is because they can come out guns-a-blazin' from the first turn with Mogg Fanatic or Figure of Destiny, then control the tempo of the game with the aforementioned Fanatic (a walking two-for-one) or any of numerous burn spells.

In order to beat the Red Deck, Faeries really wants a second-turn Bitterblossom—scary as that might sound—into a fourth-turn Mistbind Clique, then to control the opponent's ability to attack with multiple Cryptic Commands .... Easy to say out loud, harder to perform under pressure.

Now, as Brett fought successfully through three Faeries mirrors in the Pennsylvania Top 8, we thought it would be great if he could tell us how exactly to win the mirror (just glancing at the blue-and-gray boxes should tell you that Fae will be one of if not the runaway most popular deck for the time being).

1. The key cards are Bitterblossom and Thoughtseize. Bitterblossom is the true threat, whereas Thoughtseize is listed in order to take the opponent's Bitterblossom. Brett advocates aggressive mulligans to obtain these strategic cards or proxies for therm. Slow draws are poison.

2. On the play only, you can keep a hand with Broken Ambitions so as to counter the opponent's turn-two Bitterblossom.

3. Ponder allows you to keep otherwise weak hands, and even hide a Bitterblossom one deep so that the opponent can't Thoughtseize yours.

4. Should you find yourself up against a Bitterblossom with none of your own, the 2008 Pennsylvania State Champion suggests using Agony Warp to set up a two-for-one in the hopes of putting the opponent behind on the board. Yes. Winning from this position will be just as difficult as it sounds.

If you want to hear it all from the Champ himself, following is a brief interview with Brett Blackman:

So we've spent a fair amount of time the past couple of weeks focusing on Standard specifically in preparation for last weekend's State Championships (great job to the TOs, by the way); the bummer from my perspective has been that Standard will take a back seat, with few big tournaments to run all these new decks we have been discussing.

But what if there were another big event to strut your Standard stuff?

Rob Johnson of OMG! Games and Collectables and some other TOs have linked arms to produce a $2500 Open this weekend... and the format is Standard.

Tell us about the event...

As an advanced event organizer and store owner (OMG! Games and Collectibles in Barrie, Ontario Canada), I saw [the recent] Organized Play program restructuring as an opportunity. Wizards was telling us TOs that it was time for us to step up and take an active role in the development and cultivation of new and existing players. After talking to Pete Hoefling (of Star City Games), I decided to put together an event that celebrated Magic in all its forms and really gave players something that they could sink their teeth into. I was lucky enough to be able to bring John Fernandez (Untouchables Sports Cards & Gaming) and Marvin Paguirigan (Skyfoxgames) into the event, making it one of the largest independently run events that Ontario has ever had.

What are the special features, side events, and especially the prize structure of the event?

Well, the Main Event is the $2500 Standard Open that's offering $800 plus the 14" tall OMG! Games and Collectibles Trophy for 1st place (and prizes to the Top 16). But it's really about the whole day! It's like going to a Grand Prix: We've got the Ontario Vintage Championships (over $1500 in prizes, including an unlimited Ancestral Recall and Time Walk and 16 dual lands), a $500 Seal deck Challenge, plus drafting and more....so much Magic it's unbelievable!

Where and when, of course?

It's being held Saturday in Barrie, Ontario, Canada (roughly an hour north of Toronto) and the Army, Navy, and Airforce Association (7 George street). It's just outside of the downtown core, and just minutes away from our waterfront. Being a college town, there's always something going on somewhere (including the regular Saturday night Cube Draft at a location to be named later). There's tons of food around, but we'll be bringing in food and drinks to tide players over until they can sample some of Barrie's fine food.

Any special appearances by local pros, artists, etc?

We've got a huge list of Ontario's best players attending, including this year's UNDEFEATED Regionals / Champs winner Matt Mealing.

Anything else you want to mention?

Well, we've got two regional television stations covering the event (Rogers TV and A Channel), as well as the news media. Plus, we've brought in a special coverage team to keep everyone up to date on what going on. Like I said, it's like our own little Grand Prix!

It really sounds like Rob has a great event brewing up north. I dearly wish I could attend myself!

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