Thirst for Knowledge: From Barcelona to Seattle
By Chris Jobin on May 28th, 2009 · Filed in Standard (Type 2), Thirst for Knowledge · Comments not available just now
Although I grew up in Flint, I recently moved to Grand Rapids to go to school. At the local shop in that area, there is a kid that always brought some kind of Swans of Bryn Argoll deck to FNM. This was never that significant to me, but that all changed the night I decided to run the UR Swans control deck at FNM in preparation for my For the Birds article on the deck. That night he was again playing his 42-land Swans deck, and we "butted heads," shall we say. I explained that the "Rad Nauseam" deck was cute, but not good enough to compete in the format. He of course disagreed, and proceeded to take some low blows at me in the process. This was all well and good, though, since I knew I was right about the whole ordeal, and so did everyone else in the store that night. With the results of Grand Prix: Barcelona, however, I'm sure he's sitting at his house back in Grand Rapids grinning ear-to-ear. That is, if he even keeps on this stuff. I honestly have no idea.
Now, I know that he has no reason to feel smug, considering that the cascade mechanic is what makes the deck good in the first place, but I also know that none of that new-fangled "logic" is going to save me from the comments I'm sure to receive at our next meeting. I'll be the first to admit that I never thought I'd see the day when a deck with forty-one lands would win a Standard Grand Prix, but there's no denying that Cascade Swans is a strong deck. For those of you who aren't yet aware of this deck, here it is:
The first thing you may notice is that I chose to use Paulo's list here rather than Calafell's (the winner of the Grand Prix). The reason behind this is two-fold: first, I liked PV's manabase better. Second, the Grand Prix coverage incorrectly posted Calafell's list, and I don't know exactly what it should look like. In any case, though, the two decks (and all of the European versions of the deck) are obviously similar otherwise. They both feature Ad Nauseam to help assemble the combo as well as the Countryside Crusher sideboard plan. Luis Scott-Vargas piloted this deck at the Grand Prix as well, though he chose to play Deny Reality maindeck as a way to not only set up his combo but also to deal with things like Pithing Needle, Meddling Mage, and Runed Halo in the process. I think this might be the better way to approach the deck, as Primal Command isn't as efficient as Deny Reality. I mean, while it does get rid of a c-c-combo breaker (sorry, too easy) and tutor for Swans of Bryn Argoll, it doesn't cascade directly into your win condition all at once. I think the added versatility of Deny Reality is too good to pass up, and it's definitely the way I would play the deck if I was going to run it at an event.
There has been a lot of debate in the forums about Spinerock Knoll and why it's included, but I'm not so sure there needs to be so much thought placed into the matter. Even without running any numbers, it's pretty obvious that you're unlikely to hit a spell all that often with its hideaway, and that seems to be throwing some people off. The idea is merely to dig four cards deeper into your deck. No more, no less. If you hit four lands, then you shrug it off and ship them to the bottom and get that much closer to a cascade spell. If you happen to see one of the aforementioned cascade spells or combo pieces, then you're still in decent shape. I never felt like dealing seven damage in a given turn was astronomically unlikely, so if the card underneath Spinerock Knoll happens to be Swans of Bryn Argoll, you can usually use Seismic Assault to deal the seven and then activate the land to combo off. This is slightly more of a gamble if the card underneath is Deny Reality or Bituminous Blast (since they don't always happen to hit Swans), but hitting your opponent for eight damage isn't that bad of an investment regardless since you're still probably holding additional lands for when you eventually do find the rest of the combo. LSV mentioned that he didn't play Spinerock Knoll because he wasn't playing Ad Nauseam, and that makes sense to me. Although I think it's still worth playing considering that there are lots of times when you can activate it without Ad Nauseam or Swans, I can understand why the cut was made. I personally feel that the Ad Nauseam version of the deck is a lot more consistent, as you can win games in which you see no creatures at all. This is a pretty important point, too, because all too often you'll find yourself with multiple Seismic Assaults and no Swans (since the majority of the cascade spells find the enchantment with far more regularity), a situation that can be remedied with Spinerock Knoll. For every game where it might be completely irrelevant, there will be a few where it is the relevant card, and that personally justifies it for me.
Never thought I'd see this again...
As far as the deck is concerned, though, I must say that it definitely delivers. I realize that there are a number of people who think that its win at Barcelona was merely a fluke, but I'm not so sure. Granted, stopping the combo is pretty easy to do if you try, but if you don't then you're going to be totally blown out. I'd say the deck is like Dredge from last year's Extended season in that it's a combo deck that may not be the best deck, but it will win entire PTQs if left unattended. It will remain all season long this summer, looming over our heads, and I think Standard needed a good combo deck to do that. It's presence will help to balance the numbers of token decks with the number of control decks (read: decks that can beat Swans), and I'm pretty happy about that. If you don't take the time to dedicate sideboard room to Swans, you will lose, and likely often. The same was true for Dredge last year, and it showed towards the end of the season. A lot of players tend to think of combo decks like these fairly abstractly, and allow themselves to believe that, because the deck has not made a Top 8 recently, that it no longer is good and is not seeing any play. This in turn causes them to remove their sideboard hate for the deck, and then we have the "combo deck effect," which is the point in the season where the combo decks rack up Top 8s all over the place because no one came prepared for them. This was how Luis Scott-Vargas won Grand Prix: Los Angeles with TEPS, and is probably the biggest strength of combo decks in general. Swans may not be even close to as strong as Dredge or even Dragonstorm was, but it carries the same weight as it is the format's best (well, only) combo deck. While I don't think it's the right deck to play in Seattle or any PTQs anytime soon, I think later in the season it will be absolutely perfect. It's an inherently strong deck, and once people pay less attention to it it will be the deck to play.
However, let's be honest for a moment: the deck just won a Grand Prix. It will, undoubtedly, be everywhere. The MTGO queues will be packed with Swan decks, and the PTQs for the next two weeks may very well be defined by them. I mean, let's face it: Swans is not only a ridiculously easy deck to pilot, but it's also relatively cheap and doesn't require a great deal of playtesting to understand. In addition, it's very good against the token decks and anything that's mildly aggressive. That being said, it would probably be in your best interest to NOT play an aggressive deck in Seattle or at a PTQ this weekend. While it's true that BW and GW Tokens are still the premier aggro decks and easily still on top of the metagame, the fact is that this weekend will likely be all about Swans and the decks that beat it. And what decks beat Swans? Control decks.
Combo makes a triumphant return!
Control decks have been put through quite a lot in recent months, what with Banefire, Volcanic Fallout, and the cascade spells. In my last article, I mentioned how I felt that Five Color Control was nearing extinction and Faeries may not be far behind. A week ago, that seemed about right. What I didn't anticipate, however, was that not a week later a new deck would emerge that would totally shake up the metagame. The reintroduction of combo into Standard means that the very control decks that were all but dying are now alive and kicking. Riccardo Neri played a nearly-creatureless list of Five Color to a second place finish at Barcelona this past weekend, and that alone proves that maybe Five Color is something to reconsider for the format. The strengths? It plays Broken Ambitions, which means it can beat the Swans deck. It also has plenty of sweepers at its disposal (all of them, really), not to mention that it can choose from a wide array of win conditions. It still struggles with the cascade decks, but against the rest of the metagame it isn't too bad. As long as it can solve the Anathemancer problem that it inherently has, then the deck has a shot at being strong right now. I think that Neri's build was definitely unique, but perhaps not the best way to tackle the archetype. Gabriel Nassif's deck was a fair bit more conventional in that it played creatures as its win condition (which did make his opponent's removal at least somewhat relevant, which Neri's deck didn't), and overall I think that this version of the deck is still probably the right direction to take it.
The real story here, though, is the return of Faeries. Anyone who knows me knows that I have great faith in Faeries, and the statements I made last week about the deck were hard for me to write. The fact was, however, that the metagame was shaping up to be very hostile towards the deck, and the best course of action was merely to abandon ship. Sam Black, the Faeries master that he is, has shown us once again that Faeries is still ridiculous, and still capable of high finishes. What did Sam do differently in order to Top 4 a Grand Prix with Faeries in this environment? First, let's see his deck:
Firstly, Thoughtseize is in the sideboard. In a metagame filled with Anathemancers and few Faeries mirrors, this is probably the right idea. We also see three maindeck Peppersmokes, a card that Sam has been known to champion quite often as being superb for him whenever he uses it. Considering how key it is to stop Windbrisk Heights activations and kill turn one Noble Hierarchs, I'd say that the usefulness of Peppersmoke is at an all-time high. Granted, it's not gunning down opposing Bitterblossom tokens in the mirror, but offing those same tokens from the BW deck isn't too shabby either. I've put in some time this past week with Peppersmoke, and it performs as well as I would have expected. I'm not sure if I'd truly want three in the initial sixty, but I also don't know if I'd feel comfortable not playing at least three in my seventy-five.
The rest of Sam's list is basically straightforward, as he's covered all his bases and built a strong sideboard to combat the metagame. There are no Vendilion Cliques in his deck at all, and I think including that card from now on would be a good idea in that Faeries will need it against Five Color as that deck becomes more popular again. An additional Puppeteer Clique would also be alright with me, as I think it has some strong interactions in the BW match-up as well as just being solid against Anathemancer and the Reveillark decks.
So the question at this point is: is Faeries really back? If I may be completely honest, I think it just might be. I'm not sure for how long, but I think it has a very good shot at top eighting Seattle this weekend. It destroys the Swans deck, it's very good against Five Color, well-positioned to beat BW, stupid good against GW, favorable against Lark decks, and shuts the Font of Mythos decks down outright. Five Color Blood (as well as the more aggressive Jund cascade decks) can give Faeries a rough time, but I think that with proper sideboarding and a fair amount of pilot skill, it's certainly possible to make the match-up better. No one is playing Volcanic Fallout anymore, so all of the reasons not to play Faeries are almost totally dissolved. I mean, you're still going to have to play carefully in order to not get blown out by Zealous Persecution, but being in a very favorable position against the format's combo deck (that just won a Grand Prix) and all other control strategies means that you'll often find yourself winning a wide variety of match-ups that no other deck could tackle as efficiently. The only deck remaining in the format beyond cascade decks that might cause a great deal of trouble for Faeries would be Elves, but I'm not too concerned with that deck. Yes, I realize that it also just topped a Grand Prix, but it's match-up with Swans is losable, even though it can generally pull out the win against that deck. The problem I have with Elves is that it struggles sometimes with the token decks despite having access to Infest and Maelstrom Pulse, and losing to BW and GW is NOT something I want my deck of choice to do. I think anyone looking to play Faeries this weekend should definitely address Elves in their sideboard, but not use that deck as a reason to not play Faeries.
This weekend I'm going to Canada to play in a PTQ (as I unfortunately could not make it to Seattle after all), and I'm strongly considering playing Faeries. Here is what I'm looking at:
Considering how much I liked Sam's list, it's pretty easy to see that I went the same direction with the deck. I think he really hit the nail on the head as far as what Faeries should be in this metagame, although I feel like Flashfreeze might be a bit better than Countersquall. Although you can't counter a Spectral Procession with it, you can use it for a wider number of matches than Countersquall. Against the Swans deck, it counters the only relevant spell in game one (Seismic Assault) as well as the ones that they sideboard in (Countryside Crusher). It can also be used against any of the Jund-colored aggressive decks as well as Elves and the Five Color Blood deck. Considering that Swans was my main concern (and the biggest reason why Faeries is good right now), I wanted to try to make the match-up just absolutely unlosable. I feel like it's basically there unless you get terrible draws, but I wasn't sure how much I liked Glen Elendra Archmage. After testing it more, it just seemed like I never lost if I had that card against them. Since that was my goal in the first place, I decided it was right. I chose not to play Vendilion Clique simply because there is not room for it, not to mention that it might not be needed in the first place. It's obviously great against Five Color and even Swans, but everywhere else it's far from desirable. I will likely try to find room for at least two between now and Saturday, but I'm not sure about it yet.
In all seriousness, though, you shouldn't be losing to Swans with this deck ever. I mean, I guess they can beat you if you don't draw more than one counterspell the entire game, but otherwise you should be set. They can beat you if you play loosely, though, so be aware of that. For instance, don't go for the Mistbind Clique during their upkeep until you can safely counter a Seismic Assault from the Bituminous Blast that they could have for your faerie. You also want to be sure that you don't get tricked into countering a Bloodbraid Elf or something, because then you might walk into a trap. Further, you don't want to ever tap out when they could possibly (no matter how unlikely it may be) produce a Seismic Assault with the lands they have in play. The best way to beat Swans with Faeries is to simply slow roll the match. That is, don't be too aggressive with your plays and wait for him to try and do something. Remember, there are only four copies of Seismic Assault in their deck, and once you've countered all four, you win. With Bitterblossom on turn two and any counterspell aside from Soul Manipulation in your hand by turn four, you should be in fantastic shape to win the game. I'm not suggesting that a Swans player cannot beat a Faeries player, but rather that relying essentially on just manland beats alone is not the way to win a match against a deck like Faeries, and that is just about all that the Swans deck can hope to do in light of the sheer number of counterspells in the Faerie deck. Vexing Shusher helps their game plan a bit, but it eats a removal spell most of the time and also disrupts their cascades enough to make it less of a threat than it might appear.
Save your counterspells.
While it may be true that Five Color is strong against Swans for a number of the same reasons as Faeries is, I think that 5cc's weakness to, well, Faeries is enough to make it a slightly poorer choice for both Seattle and a PTQ. Five Color Blood is another deck I might recommend for this weekend, since a proper sideboard of Runed Halos and Pithing Needles can go a long way against the Swans decks. UW Reveillark is another deck that can almost auto-win against Swans if built right, but that deck still can't beat Faeries to save its life. I never thought a week ago that I'd be using "it loses to Faeries" as an argument against a deck, but I guess now it's at the forefront of every deck decision for this weekend. I still think that Lark is a fantastic deck right now, and with Runed Halo and Meddling Mage it could very well top eight Seattle through a sea of BW decks and Swans players. Faerie decks will dreamcrush it all day, sure, but even with a metagame shift in favor of Faeries I doubt it will be that heavily represented.
All I know at this point is that Mistbind Clique is back in a big way, and Standard is finally in a state of balance. You can once again choose between aggro, control, or combo and be satisfied with your choice regardless of what it was. The top eight of Seattle is anyone's game, though I would be surprised not to see at least one Swans, Faerie, and BW deck in there somewhere. I really wish I could make it out to Seattle this weekend to see for myself, but it's an awful long way to go from here in Michigan. I want to personally wish Ari Lax the best of luck out there, since he's got a lot of friends and teammates here that know he has what it takes to top eight the event (and the Pro Tour soon thereafter). I also wish Mr. Gavin Verhey the best of luck beating on players in his hometown. There's homecourt advantage in Magic too, right?
Until next time,
Chris "Shinjutsei" Jobin
By Chris Jobin on May 28th, 2009 · Filed in Standard (Type 2), Thirst for Knowledge · Comments not available just now