Gosh, has it been a crazy week. Between Easter weekend, classes, exams, and a slew of new cards from Alara Reborn, I've had little time to even sleep, let alone do much testing. Luckily, however, I have enough time this particular evening to bring you yet another edition of Thirst for Knowledge! Last week I reflected on the Extended season and spoke a bit about the upcoming Standard season, but my article met with quite a lot of negativity. Not only did I receive complaints because I talked too much about Islands, but I also got chaff for my humor, of all things. While I can't please everyone, I do have a way to please some folks: this week will not be about Islands!
Before I begin, however, I'd like to take a second to talk about Grand Prix: Seattle. Wizards of the Coast has changed the event site from Seattle to Tacoma, but chosen to keep the name of the event the same. While I can't necessarily agree with sticking with the current name, I can't say I'm entirely displeased with the new venue. A bigger site will be wonderful, and the fact that the convention center is still near the airport is quite nice (apparently Seattle and Tacoma share the same airport, which is convenient).
This weekend I made the trip down to Livonia here in Michigan to drop in on Pam Willoughby, owner of RIW Hobbies. She gave me a shirt, and I'm now a member of Team RIW, which I'm very proud to be a part of. That being said, I can now officially afford to go to Seattle, and I think it would be great if those of you attending could let me know in the forums so we can get some games in or something. Grand Prix events are always a great time, and I encourage any and all that can make it to go. I mean, come on - it's a Standard Grand Prix!
So, what do I have in store for my dear readers this week? Well, as the title of this article might suggest, I'm going to talk about the polar opposite of my beloved Faeries: Spectral Procession decks. All three of them function in the same manner at their core: use Spectral Procession to generate card advantage with Windbrisk Heights. I'll cover each of the three decks, and offer some insight into which I think is best or strongest in what particular fields.
First up, I'm going to talk about Red/White Reveillark. Here is a sample list:
Brian Kowal's baby has become something of a phenomenon in recent months. Since Worlds last year, the deck's popularity has done nothing but skyrocket. RW Lark has easily been the most-played deck in nearly every event since, and continues to rake in more and more players. So, what's the allure? What is it about this deck that brings so many players in?
Well, for starters, RW Lark showcases Reveillark, a card that is just too powerful not to be abused in one way or another. The deck plays lots of cards that are synergistic with the Elemental, obviously, but the thing that sets RW Lark apart from, say, Esper Lark is that RW utilizes Reveillark as a means to recover and apply pressure rather than merely generate card advantage. Using Spectral Procession to fuel Windbrisk Heights, RW Lark can play on the same level as the other aggressive decks but also put up better numbers against Five Color due to its inclusion of Ajani Vengeant (and, well, Reveillark). This approach generally weakens the match-ups with the other aggro decks in the format, but that's a slightly moot point when one considers that the current Standard is one that revolves around Islands.
RW Lark's good match-ups include Five Color, Esper Lark (generally), RDW/Blightning, and other controlling decks that aren't called Faeries. Inherent card advantage and resilience to sweepers due to Reveillark means that RW can constantly apply pressure and rebuild entirely in a single turn, both of which are strong attributes to have in the control match-ups. Ranger of Eos itself is simply a stellar card against Five Color, as placing a decent threat on the table whilst also fetching two more is seldom less than amazing. Further, post-sideboard the RW deck has access to cards like Banefire and possibly even Guttural Response to combat control strategies, as well as the incredible Fulminator Mage. The latter has just begun to see more play again, and I think that that is absolutely the right call. Fulminator Mage is pretty well-positioned right now against a metagame full of Five Color, though it might actually be a stronger card in the maindeck rather than the sideboard. The reasoning behind this is that if you maindeck it, you can randomly use it on opposing copies of Windbrisk Heights while also stealing game one wins from Five Color. On the other hand, it's typically quite awful against aggressive decks and as such you want to minimize the number you draw in those match-ups. With that in mind, I'm okay with keeping it in the side for now.
Still one of the best cards in the format.
The match-ups that RW wants to avoid are few and far between in terms of number of actual decks (there's only two, really), but the numbers in which those decks appear are quite depressing. When the two match-ups you fear are Black/White Tokens and Faeries, it's a wonder that your deck can be so popular. A strong match-up with Five Color is enough to carry RW Lark to the top, certainly, but a horrendous match-up with Faeries and a moderately difficult one with BW seems to tell me that RW Lark is somewhat of an awkward choice right now for Standard. The issue with BW is that their guys are not only more plentiful than yours, but also generally two to three times the size. This makes your Spectral Processions pretty loose overall, and Ajani Vengeant is next to worthless (aside from being a Vindicate on their Ajani Goldmane). Your only real way of staying in the game against BW is to land a turn one Figure of Destiny and try to get there with it for as long as you can.
Faeries, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. In all honestly, this match-up is awful. It may not be as bad as Blightning is for Fae, sure, but it's pretty terrible. The Faerie deck plays four copies of Thoughtseize, four copies of Mistbind Clique, four copies of Cryptic Command, a slew of counterspells, and at least two to three copies of Vendilion Clique. When you consider that most of RW's plan revolves around playing single, powerful spells each turn at specific parts of the curve, it is entirely too easy for Faeries to play one of these spells and effectively Time Walk for multiple turns in a row. Ajani Vengeant is also hardly that strong in light of Bitterblossom, and even Path to Exile is weak against a deck that has so few "real" threats. Add to this that game one they have Scion of Oona to bolster their team and it becomes very clear very fast that this match-up is just not ever going to be less than awful. On the bright side, however, the current format gives players (especially those playing with Mountains) a number of ways to combat Faeries. After sideboarding, cards like Volcanic Fallout, Banefire, and Guttural Response help to alleviate some of the pressure from the flying menaces, but even all of that hate does little to improve RW's odds. If this archetype wants to ever be the true top dog, it will need to totally reshape its maindeck and core strategy to one that isn't so easily preyed upon by Fae's gameplan.
Interestingly enough, newer builds of the RW deck have dropped the Spectral Processions from the deck altogether along with the Ajani Vengeants in favor of more positive aggro match-ups. Here's the list that Jasper Johnson-Epstein Top 8'd with at the SCG 5K in Indianapolis a few weeks ago:
This new approach to the deck strengthens the BW match-up fairly significantly, but takes a slight step back against Faeries (losing Spectral Procession hurts a bit) and perhaps even the mirror. I haven't been able to put in extensive testing with this new version of the deck, but I'm more drawn to it than its predecessor, that's for certain. Murderous Redcap in particular seems incredibly strong in a metagame filled with x/2 creatures, and the effectiveness of that card only increases exponentially after sideboarding with the addition of Galepowder Mage. And, speaking of Galepowder Mage, it seems as though this card might have a place back in the maindeck like it was when "Antoine Control" was first conceived.
In any case, the RW deck is well-tuned for metagames filled with Five Color. Depending on the version of the deck that you choose to run, you might even be able to run it up against decks like BW with relative ease, though I'd never place money on beating Faeries with any level of consistency.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have BW Tokens. Again, I'll lead off with a list:
The BW deck is a far cry from the RW Lark deck, despite both playing the Heights engine. BW strives to win its games in the more uniform fashion of "make a ton of guys, make them bigger, and then kill you." The compliments to this strategy are the disruption elements of Tidehollow Sculler and Thoughtseize, both of which seek to rob control decks of the tools needed to stave off the onslaught of tokens pumped out by the deck on a turn-by-turn basis.
The best match-up for BW is arguably RW Lark, since BW does a lot of the same things that that deck does except with more fervor and efficiency. It does trade in the reach and recursion elements of Lark, sure, but the disruption it packs along with the seven maindeck pump effects more than make up for it. After sideboarding things become even easier, since Burrenton Forge-Tender ensures that Volcanic Fallout doesn't ruin your day and Celestial Purge takes care of the stragglers. Wrath of God can also lend a helping hand in making sure your board position is always favorable to theirs (remember, you've got Bitterblossom!), and you can always use Ajani Goldmane as spot removal for Ajani Vengeant.
The Five Color match-up is generally in your favor, but they can certainly come out on top if you slip up. The rule of thumb here is whether or not you can resolve a Head Games against them. If you can, you'll more than likely buy yourself enough time to win. If you can't, however, you'll have a long way to go in fighting for the win. Thoughtseize out of the sideboard helps tremendously, and Burrenton Forge-Tender is very strong also. Kitchen Finks goes a long way to help against their sweepers as well as replace lost life from your own spells, and every little bit counts.
You want this card in your 75. Really.
Faeries is the awkward one. Post-Worlds, it was mostly agreed that the BW-Fae match-up was mostly even, and it remains so even now. Neither deck has changed much at all, with the only significant change being that BW is no longer maindecking Thoughtseize. This detail actually gives Faeries a definitive edge in the first game, though the match-up reverts to 50/50 after sideboarding. If the Faerie deck has no copies of Scion of Oona, however, the match-up is slightly in your favor as this makes your Bitterblossoms effectively better than theirs. All in all, though, this match-up is generally based on which player is better. I know that seems like a cop-out, but it's actually very true. Faeries vs. BW is slightly in the favor of Fae most of the time, but it will more than likely come down to which player knows the match-up and their deck better. In most cases, though, that would be Faeries.
The best part about BW Tokens in this format is that it really has no bad match-ups, though it doesn't have any auto-wins either. RW Lark is fairly good for you, but it's still very losable. I feel like BW epitomizes the old saying "jack of all trades, master of none" better than most decks in recent memory. I would suggest this Procession deck to anyone looking to bring a solid, consistent deck to a large event. If you plan to do so, though, I can't stress enough how much you need the four copies of Thoughtseize in the sideboard - they are just essential versus Faeries.
Is that what you expected? No, you certainly expected GW Tokens here, didn't you? Well, the truth is that I don't feel that that deck has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the three decks I listed here today, and so I'm not sure I need to talk about it. In any case, let's focus on what I am talking about. RW Kithkin is a classic deck at this point, and the list that Cedric played at both Kyoto and the 5K in Indianapolis (he played the same seventy-five) is basically absolutely right as-is, and thus there's no need for me to give my take on the deck.
To start off, I think that this deck is positively sick. If I wasn't so busy winning with Faeries all the time, I would play this deck in a heartbeat. Look at that beautiful list, with all its four-ofs and powerful cards! But seriously, the deck is ridiculous. It has the token-generating power of BW, the card advantage of RW, and a hyper-aggressiveness that is all its own. It really is the most aggressive deck in the format, and rightfully so. There isn't a whole lot to say about the deck that hasn't already been said about the other two decks (or about this deck just months ago), but there are a few distinct advantages to playing this deck over the other two.
For one, the deck is fast. You can easily roll over decks like Esper Lark and Five Color if you play your removal spells correctly and don't overextend or walk into their tricks and such. Five Color is in their favor for the first game, but Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Reveillark help to make the match-up much better for you after sideboarding.
This card was WAY better than we all expected...
Secondly, you have a slight edge against the other Procession decks because of Wizened Cenn and the speed of your deck. With plenty of pump spells and pump spells with legs, you'll generally never find yourself not dropping tons of pressure even on the most aggressive of opponents. Additionally, you still have Vindicate against both the RW and BW decks, not to mention removal in the form of Path to Exile (which prevents future Reveillark shenanigans). You're at a slight disadvantage against BW in general since they still play a bit more pump than you do, but you're going to beat RW most of the time and your sideboard has plenty of room to adjust for beating BW Tokens.
Lastly (but probably most importantly), is the Fae match-up. As a die-hard Faeries player, RW Kithkin is the only aggressive deck I fear. The match-up isn't drastically in the favor of either deck - it's again probably more of a 50/50 type of deal - but it certainly is difficult on both ends. A fast Kithkin draw will roll most Faeries draws, but a strong Faeries draw will still be nigh unbeatable regardless. Generally Faeries can just stabilize and win like it always did (and even more so with Sower of Temptation and Scion of Oona, which all good Faeries decks should be playing maindeck by now in my opinion), but the Kithkin player still has strong topdecks like Cloudgoat Ranger as well as the old Windbrisk Heights tricks on its side. The bottom line, though, is that RW Kithkin has the best match-up with Faeries of all the Procession decks, and I think that alone gives it an edge over the other two.
If your meta consists of a good amount of Faeries and Five Color, this is just about your only real option (and it's an incredibly strong one, at that). Be wary of the BW match-up, certainly, but otherwise you should do fine with this deck.
Well, now...that wasn't so bad. As much as I love Islands, I still enjoy writing about other types of decks as well. Spectral Procession strategies are powerful right now, despite having generally weak numbers against Faeries. The fact that each has its own merits in the environment helps to keep Standard far from stale, though I think it's only a matter of time before people realize that RW Kithkin is the stoneblade and start playing it like crazy. I hope, as a Faeries player, that it takes them until October to see it.
Before I depart (as I have exams to study for, you see), I'd like to take a second to discuss an Alara Reborn rumor...
This could change everything, people.
I tested it a good deal in Esper Lark the other night, though the results were generally negative. To be fair, though, most of that testing was done against Faeries, so that doesn't say a great deal about the accuracy of it all. Still, Meddling Mage seems like the card, in theory, that would make the Lark vs. Fae match-up at least winnable for the Lark deck. Apparently not.
Still, there are lots of other ways to use Pikula, such as in the archetype that my friend Collin La Fleur reminded me of: UW Merfolk. If you chant a card like Volcanic Fallout with this guy, you might actually be able to topple the decks with red sweepers. Can Merfolk make a comeback? I suppose only time will tell.
I don't know yet what I'll tackle next week, so feel free to offer some suggestions in the forums.