"The report of my death was an exaggeration."
—Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, 1897
ou can take the Stoneforge Mystic and the Jace, the Mind Sculptor out of Caw-Blade... but apparently leaving the "Caw" (Squadron Hawk) and the "Blade" (Sword of Feast and Famine) leaves a heck of a deck list. Several recent tournament results—including more than one high-profile event just this past weekend—saw Caw-Blade reappropriations in top spots (including the top spot, on more than one occasion).
The most impressive of these was probably the 2011 France National Championship. The now-reigning king of France had to go through Pro Tour Hall of Famer Olivier Ruel on the way to his title; his weapon of choice... You guessed it! Caw-Blade!
Armel Primot's Caw-Blade
Standard – 2011 France National Championship
Primot's version is much more creature-oriented and offensive than previous builds. Where the "classic" Caw-Blade was just eight creatures (Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk) all playing well past their ostensible numbers, the France champ's build has tons and tons of heavy hitters.
All together, the France Nationals Top 8 looked like this:
Meanwhile, back on Magic's home court, Caw-Blade was posting more and more impressive finishes. At the StarCityGames.com Open Series event in Seattle last weekend, two consistent overachievers on that circuit met in the finals in a 74-card Caw-Blade mirror.
Nick Spagnolo's Caw-Blade
Standard – StarCityGames.com Open in Seattle, WA
Fellow finalist Edgar Flores swapped out the Sun Titan in the sideboard for a Negate.
While still packing a core of four Squadron Hawks, plus Sword of Feast and Famine as the Equipment of choice, the StarCity finals Caw-Blade list was quite differently focused. Instead of mostly creatures for threats and just one Gideon Jura, Nick and Edgar played five planeswalkers, with the backbone of Jace Beleren.
Their deck leaned 50% more on Sword of Feast and Famine, with three copies instead of the French champ's duo; their main creature just the classic "Caw."
What they did have main deck as a source of creatures—and a way to get back into games where they start out behind—is new Magic 2012 workhorse Timely Reinforcements. It is relatively easy to turn a short-term disadvantage into a massive swing with this new card. Three mana for three creatures, and/or 6 life? Timely Reinforcements could potentially undo a Ball Lightning and leave you with a profit!
That isn't to say there isn't quite a bit in common between the two looks at Caw-Blade. In addition to the core of Squadron Hawk and the retention of Sword of Feast and Famine, we see in both decks a respect for TwinBlade variants in main deck Spellskite and Dismember (it is just a question of how many copies of each). And regardless of how focused either deck is on attacking with Sword of Feast and Famine (or attacking with creatures at all), both have access to Day of Judgment.
Another style of deck to make big moves since the banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic—previously considered the strongest blue and white cards in the format—is ironically the sometimes blue (but always white) Hawkward / Tempered Steel archetype.
The most impressive Tempered Steel (Standard) finish so far is probably Ryuuichiro Ishida's from Japan Nationals:
Ryuuichiro Ishida's Tempered Steel
Standard – 2011 Japan National Championship
So how does this deck work?
Standard is a format with truly great and efficient white creatures. These can range from relatively inexpensive heavy hitters like Mirran Crusader to demi-Titans like Hero of Bladehold to card-advantage engines like Squadron Hawk (and formerly Stoneforge Mystic). The Tempered Steel archetype for the most part eschews aggressively costed and nakedly powerful white creatures in favor of greater synergy.
The deck is white mostly because the card Tempered Steel costs .
With the exception of one-drop Glint Hawk, there is no pressing need for the deck to be white otherwise. A slugger like Porcelain Legionnaire can come down with Phyrexian mana whether or not white mana is available, and probably hits the battlefield in a white deck at a 2 life premium more than half the time.
The deck is largely an offensive artifact deck. Yes, Tempered Steel is white, but the vast majority of attackers are artifacts that get bigger and badder via the Steel. When he convinced multiple Hall of Fame superstars to audible to his Hawkward deck back at Pro Tour Paris, Steve Sadin was even playing Vector Asps... with no plans to give it infect!
Ishida's Tempered Steel deck is hyper-aggressive, with three copies of Contested War Zone in the land mix. Contested War Zone can help you deal a ton of damage when you are swarming with multiple attackers, but it is an obvious liability if you are ever on the defensive (the opponent hits you and gets a free card while simultaneously stunting your mana development).
A similar strategy was played to the Top 8 of the Australia National Championship by John Jiann Hua Chin. All of Chin's changes relative to Ishida's winning deck list were in his sideboard:
2 Celestial Purge
4 Kor Firewalker
2 Mental Misstep
4 Shrine of Loyal Legions
Basically, he went from a heavily anti-Red Deck sideboard (2 Celestial Purge / 4 Kor Firewalker) to more specialized solutions, including Act of Aggression (a surprise favorite, thanks to its Phyrexian mana) against Exarch Twin.
As we've said, Tempered Steel decks are (always) white largely because the card Tempered Steel is white, but for most of the cards, there isn't a strong allegiance to that color. You certainly don't have to be mono-white.
Andrew Bennett cracked the Top 8 of the Australia with a very slight blue splash:
Andrew Bennett's White-Blue Tempered Steel
Standard – 2011 Australia National Championship
Basically what we see here is the replacement of Contested War Zone with Seachrome Coast. Bennett doesn't even have any blue cards! His Seachrome Costs are mostly there making Spellskite more convenient.
That said, a deeper blue splash is certainly possible for the Tempered Steel archetype. Here is a look by Caw-Blade Grand Prix Champion Dave Shiels (a player who knows about adding a Preordain to a white beatdown creature deck if ever there was one):
David Shiels's White-Blue Tempered Steel
Standard – StarCityGames.com Open in Cincinnati, OH
A heavier blue commitment requires a bit more in the blue lands department; Shiels answered that requirement with four copies of Glacial Fortress. But what is he doing with these?
Preordain – Less a one-mana play in this deck than you might see elsewhere, Preordain is going to help dig for Tempered Steel or Steel Overseer to boost the rest of the guys; of course it can help deliver answers (Dispatch when you are under pressure by a particular creature, and so on).
Mana Leak – Dave's take on the Tempered Steel archetype adds an additional wrinkle out of the sideboard, especially useful against control deck with cards like Day of Judgment that could sweep up "just" a bunch of little white creatures. Mana Leak gives Tempered Steel a repositioning opportunity (from beatdown to aggro-control, in the vein of CounterSliver decks of yore), and can of course also be used to surgically stop any number of slower, but very powerful, cards that a hyper-aggressive deck might see as a midgame stop sign or tempo robber.
Most of this article has been devoted to a particular stripe of decks and color combination—essentially aggressive, if sometimes flexible, white-blue decks—but I would like to take a moment to look at a couple of different Birthing Pod decks, especially as one of them won a National Championship last week.
Before we proceed, this is what Australia's Top 8 looked like:
Aaron Nicoll's Blue-Red-Green Splinter Twin
Standard – 2011 Australia National Championship
This deck is just a super sick hybrid combining two of the most powerful things you can do in the format: an accelerated Birthing Pod chain and the Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin combination.
It goes almost without saying that a Birds of Paradise-driven deck is the fastest kind of Exarch Twin, with first-turn Birds of Paradise, second-turn Deceiver Exarch, third turn kill setup with Splinter Twin.
Additionally, the deck can play a second-turn Birthing Pod with the selfsame Birds.
Its non-combo chain can go something like...
1. Birds of Paradise
2. Overgrown Battlement
3. Tuktuk the Explorer
4. Solemn Simulacrum
5. Acidic Slime
6. Frost Titan
On the way Tuktuk the Explorer is going to leave a 5/5, both Rampant Growth and draw an extra card with Solemn Simulacrum, blow up a land with Acidic Slime, then lock down another one with Frost Titan.
So basically, even when you are not combo-killing the opponent, your "other" line of attack is still pretty awesome.
Nicoll's version has Exarch Twin lockdown points at 2 with Spellskite, and again at 5 with Urabrask the Hidden; the latter will keep an opposing Twin deck from being able to go off in one turn (even when you have the combo, all your tokens will enter the battlefield tapped, and hence will not be able to attack). Last, Nicoll's deck runs both Ponder and Preordain (albeit four of neither), which can help set up either line of offense.
As was mentioned earlier, Olivier Ruel played a very different, Bant-colored Birthing Pod deck in France Nationals:
Olivier Ruel's Bant Birthing Pod
Standard – 2011 France National Championship
Olivier's deck obviously has no Twin combination, but it does have a combination.
Stonehorn Dignitary + Venser, the Sojourner is a lockdown for the opponent's attacks.
With Llanowar Elves in addition to Birds of Paradise, Ruel's Pod deck can play Birthing Pod on the second turn with much greater regularity (the fourth copy of Birthing Pod certainly helps there).
Ruel's deck can chain all the way up to Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite on seven (often leaving two 5/5 Wurmcoil Engine remnants). Additionally, a solo Razor Hippogriff gives it the opportunity to re-buy a Birthing Pod (or Solemn Simulacrum, maybe Wurmcoil Engine) that was previously lost to removal or sacrifice.
Like the format as a whole, this build offers a lot of options.
From straight beatdown like Tempered Steel, to beatdown with a little control like... Tempered Steel, to an echo of Caw-Blade, pure combo, or hybrid decks various, Standard in the summer of 2011 continues to offer different options for whatever kind of strategy you want to pick up. Good luck, whichever one that is!