Going Rogue for States

At Magic's core, there are essentially two parts to winning a tournament (in a vacuum): deckbuilding and play skill.

To show extremes, if you hand a new player something relatively simple in terms of a combo deck (such as a Dragonstorm deck), he will not do as well because he does not recognize the synergies between the cards, or how to use Gigadrowse effectively, or how to play carefully so his Lotus Bloom doesn't get Canceled.

On the flip side of this Magic coin, you can hand the greatest player in the world a deck with 60 Mountains in it, and he can't win. The only thing worse than that would be a 59-card deck with all Mountains, because then he can't even mana burn himself. He ends up with a trip to DQ-land (and not the one with Sundaes either).

These skills do not go hand-in-hand. Many of Magic's best players can not design a deck, and often enlist the help of netdecks, riding on their personal superior play skill to win tournaments. Sure, there are your Guillaume Wafo-Tapas and your Olivier Ruels (who recently visited DQ-land again himself...), but for the most part, pros suffer from something called The Fox TV Syndrome: a crippling disease which cuts off your originality at the source.

Even R&D comes up short on ideas sometimes...
This isn't to say that they can't build decks, it just means that the word "rogue" means "bad" to them. When Heartbeat of Spring combo decks started coming out of the woodworks 3 years ago, a lot of people were skeptical. Once it won a medium-scale tournament or two, however, the pros took notice.

Let me veer off into another topic, for just a moment.

The Standard format (post-Lorwyn) has a lot of questions floating around in terms of what will be good. Most people have already come to the conclusion that Kithkin, Goblins, Elves, and (potentially) Merfolk are the best tribes for simple aggro / midrange decks. Elementals seem to be the 'combo' tribe (and Soulbright Flamekin even makes Dragonstorm potentially viable again). Faeries seem to be a control tribe (duh) that look like instead of appearing as a full-fledged tribal deck will instead round out Blue/Black control lists (Mistbind Cliqueing a Faerie's Conclave is pretty sweet, just because it makes you feel smart). Treefolk don't seem too great in general, but Doran, the Siege Tower is practically guaranteed to see play somewhere. And Giants? Um... well, they can't all be winners.

Also, people know that good decks are made around good cards. The current crop has some exceptional power levels, on cards such as Thoughtseize, Tarmogoyf, and Goldmeadow Stalwart (he's probably the reason Kithkin is playable).

You might notice that in the banner for this article, I mention "Going Rogue" and then show two of the premier cards (and probably the best cards) in the format, Seize and Goyf. While I do feel that those cards aren't rogue in the slightest, I don't believe for a second that going rogue means "playing the format’s scraps". Just because your deck hasn't won a large-scale tournament doesn't make it bad, and you should run good cards whenever you can (as they increase the power level of the deck as a whole).

A quick aside: Haakon, Stromgald Scourge + Nameless Inversion / Crib Swap is popular, but sometimes difficult to pull off. Oona's Prowler, Smallpox, and if you're really ballsy, Thoughtseizing yourself are simple ways to dump Haakon off. This combo can be hell for aggro decks, and it's worth trying to tweak if you're in an aggro-heavy metagame (for States).

Back to my first point.

Thinking outside the box (or bun) is one of the first things you learn about being an entrepreneur. And let's face it: people who can think for themselves are better off. Right?

So why do we just netdeck blindly in order to prepare for a tournament?

In older formats, Raphael Levy's stance is generally right (netdeck to win). New decks just don't show up very much because older archetypes are faster and harder to dent (without say, a broken mechanic). Also, if you only have four days to a week in order to prepare, playtest and get cards, you should probably netdeck for Standard too.

In Standard, however, you usually have a card pool that is big enough to be able to make your own kind of take on things (and time to build it), and a format speed that allows you to make whatever you want (so long as it can take whatever the 'best decks' are).

Something Borrowed, and Almost New

After analyzing my local metagame, exactly 6 decks stood at the top tier of what was competitive: White/green Kithkin (the new "stupid aggro deck"), Green/Black Control (a deck which exploits the best cards in the format across all mana costs, namely Thoughtseize and Tarmogoyf), Martyr Control (a powerful deck that crushes aggro under a sea of removal, namely Condemn and Wrath of God, while also abusing Martyr of Sands, the deck’s namesake to gain absurd amounts of life and stay ahead), Black/Red Goblins (like Kithkin, but slower and with more recursion via Wort, Boggart Auntie and Boggart Birth Rite), Blue/Black Teachings (like the old Teachings lists, except now it focuses a little more heavily on the amazing synergy between Evoke and Recover (namely the Mulldrifter/Grim Harvest engine capable of drawing absurd amounts of cards) and DDTrees (which is basically Green/Black/White "good cards" with Doran, the Siege Tower in it; I just hated Duran Duran and the name that this deck got tagged with as a result of that band's name).

DDTrees = Doran de Trees. Pretty simple logic.

When we first started playtesting, our group came across the most obvious of the stupid aggro tribes, Kithkin. A close replica would be this:

W/g Kithkin AggroMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Goldmeadow Stalwart
4 Gaddock Teeg
4 Knight of Meadowgrain
4 Wizened Cenn
2 Mirror Entity
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Saffi Eriksdotter

3 Glorious Anthem
4 Oblivion Ring
4 Mana Tithe
4 Militia's Pride

4 Horizon Canopy
4 Brushland
4 Flagstones of Trokair
3 Treetop Village
5 Plains

The deck is pretty easy to play. On the play, a first turn Goldmeadow Stalwart can put pressure on an opponent that's very reminiscent of old Gruul decks. Gaddock Teeg is there for one obvious reason (to hate Damnations and Wrath of Gods away.... and for being a Kithkin). Knight of Meadowgrain is just good for his mana cost, also allowing you to pull ahead of opposing aggro decks (this guy will eat some Tarfires in his day.... the ones that aren't aimed at Teeg, that is). Wizened Cenn is just a nice Anthem-type effect, and also comes down turn 2, making a bulky 3/3 out of Goldmeadow Stalwart early. Mirror Entity is simply amazing. Often times, using the ability just once for four will win the game after some early damage. Tarmogoyf is... Tarmogoyf. If you're not familiar with this, I suggest you play some Standard. Or Extended. Or anything, really... Lastly, Saffi is there to keep Teeg and Tarmogoyf alive, making it harder for them to Wrath... or just keeping the 'Goyf around for longer.

Glorious Anthem comes down a little late and can sometimes feel dead (like playing it post-Wrath), but it helps so much against other aggro that it was included a three-of. Oblivion Ring helps get rid of problem nonland permanents such as other Tarmogoyfs (not to mention it's exactly the thing that Haakon hates to see). Mana Tithe is almost vital, since it can force the inevitable Wrath off until turn 5, or if they don't play around it, can shut it down.

I'm not quite as scared of a midget
as I am of a ferocious hound... just sayin'...
Militia's Pride is, in all honesty, one of the best cards in the deck, if not the best. Against aggro, it allows you to generate more guys then them while applying pressure (since the tokens stick around, providing they make it through combat). Against control, it allows you to generate pressure (often combined with Wizened Cenn) without having to overextend into Wrath of God. It's well designed, all purpose, and it's a Kithkin to boot. Not to mention, it doesn't even say "attacking Kithkin". That's a spicy meatball, folks.

The land base is sort of shaky, but personal testing would let you tweak that to whatever you need (like if you make any changes to the list).

The deck fares well against anything, with about a 50% chance of taking any game one pre-board. Like other aggro decks of its caliber, it's also able to punish bad draws (and is able to win on turn 4 with multiple different options if the opponent gets a slow draw). It's also surprisingly consistent, and frequently explodes off of turn 2 plays. I would consider adding Burrenton Forge-Tender somewhere, both because it's another one-drop and because it can shut down Pyroclasm, which will pick up play if Kithkin does.

It has a tough time against Martyr Control and Zombies, two decks with enough hate for Kithkin to keep the pressure off.

And Now, for Something Completely Different

Wait, I didn't tell you about Zombies?

Part of thinking outside the box is being able to look at the metagame with an unbiased standpoint and trying to pinpoint weaknesses in it.

A great man (and/or author of UGMadness, one of the Tier 1 MTG Webcomics) once said that whenever Magic does a tribal block, tribes from the previous block always out shadow the new ones (for Standard reasons, anyways). Since I had not yet been sold on the power of Kithkin, I decided to see if there was any truth to this myth.

In the strip (if you were too lazy to click on it or don't remember having read it), he mentions the Poison Slivers deck that had floated around during the end of Time Spiral Block season. Featuring Delay for anti-Damnation, it attempted to just swarm the opponent with little Slivers, forgoing Sinew Sliver and a "size matters" aspect; instead attempting to use Virulent Sliver and friends to poison an opponent to death. An article was written about it by Frank Karsten, which I'll link to here.

I playtested the deck with a few minor Standard updates (like better dual lands), but this format is VERY creature heavy. Well, with Two-Headed Sliver, that shouldn't be a problem, right? Actually, it's a HUGE problem, because where creatures go, removal goes. If you have ever played Limited, you probably understand the importance of removal in a creature-heavy format. This format is VERY creature heavy, so playing a bunch of tiny creatures that will die in a Pyroclasm isn't smart, and generally, they'll just kill one or two of your Slivers and then Wrath you, leaving you with hardly anything to recover with (even though Dormant Sliver IS pretty amazing, it just doesn't stand up to the current aggro crop by itself).

I tried anything I could think of to get it work, from splashing White for Sinew Sliver and Essence Sliver, even adding Rebuff the Wicked at one point. I tried running Rune Snag over Delay, then eventually tried using Cryptic Command (it's really nice to counter a spell and then tap their blockers down). However, even with all the dual lands, Gemstone Mine AND Gemhide Sliver, the triple-blue cost can still be brutal.

Feeling discouraged, I wandered over the Time Spiral spoiler, trying to find any tribe that looked like it could hold a candle to the pressure created by Kithkin. I then stumbled upon a card I've always valued a little too highly, namely Undead Warchief.

I decided to try a Zombie theme, but following Ben Bleiweiss's sage advice, did not want to be a slave to my theme. Following another bit of advice a friend gave me, "play good cards", I did a quick search for all Zombies legal in Standard, while remembering not too stray to heavily down the Zombie path.

My eyes wandered over a few guys, then stumbled upon Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. Zombies was, at this point, shaping up to be mono-black, so Korlash was an auto-include (even if you splash a second color and run Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, he's still a bomb). Then my eyes wandered across another beloved card: Haakon, Stromgald Scourge.

Yep, he's a Zombie. So I figured I'd run him alongside Smallpox and I'd even get to use the Nameless Inversion combo (Nameless Inversion also happens to be a Zombie). Smallpox was eventually cut to fix the curve of the deck, but Haakon was left alone (since Liliana Vess was trying to find herself... in my deck).

Zombies are a pretty popular creature type, so I had to check Tenth for a Lord, and sure enough, Lord of the Undead was staring me in the face (for the record, he blinked first). I knew he had Haakon-like synergies with Nameless Inversion, and his pump would allow my guys to be bigger than most opposing armies, even with all of the "Lord" madness going around right now (i.e. all of Lorwyn’s + all of Tenth's). What I did not realize at the time (though later playtesting revealed) is that he also combos VERY well with Korlash, giving you a recurring engine that gives you two Swamps every turn for 1B (at instant speed, no less).

At this point, I was beginning to feel a lot like Chris Millar (except for the respective lacks of Canadian heritage and affinity for bad decks). The deck had a ton of synergy, and I was dying to test it.

I rounded out the list with a set of Thought$ei... err, Seizes, Terrors, and Damnations for aggro hate. My current list is as follows:

Haak and 'LashMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Undead Warchief
3 Lord of the Undead
4 Korlash, Heir to Blackblade
4 Stromgald Crusader
4 Withered Wretch

4 Nameless Inversion
4 Thoughtseize
4 Terror
2 Tendrils of Corruption
2 Damnation
1 Grim Harvest

2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
2 Gilt-Leaf Palace
1 Urza's Factory
17 Swamp
2 Llanowar Wastes

You're probably going to notice that Haakon got moved to the board, even though he's sort of a namesake of the deck. Sorry, but I'm not big on Thoughtseizing myself just to get Haakon to sort of die. Playing him alongside Liliana, however, is a little better.

Earlier in the article, I went over what our local metagame has determined to be the best decks. I'll give a quick rundown of how to beat each one.

W/g Kithkin: Let Kithkin play the beatdown early. You have a large suite of spot removal to deal with early Goldmeadow Stalwarts and Wizened Cenns. They don't pack a burn suite, so just continue to whittle down their threats until you get a window to slap down something of merit (such as Korlash, Heir to Blackblade). Lord of the Undead is very powerful here as he can continue to recur Nameless Inversion, which can make it next to impossible for Kithkin to Kith-win (sorry).

A quick aside, Stromgald Crusader will dominate this matchup for you. If you're on the play, slap this guy down as early as you can, because they don't have any answers for it. Be wary of Treetop Village and Tarmogoyf... but hey, that's why he can fly. More like Superman Crusader!

Post-board, you should be wary of Sunlace, as it's always going to smack your Lords in the face. Paladin en-Vec is also coming in... just play around it carefully, and try to limit the number of Anthem-style effects they can keep, because otherwise, you should be able to race them fine. Remain patient, since this match is in your favor. You probably won't need to board in anything, but it they're running Thorn of Amethyst, then your Krosan Grips probably need to come in (even if they will cost 3G+).

G/B Control is a simple game, just play smart. They also run Treetop Village like Kithkin, but mostly, it's just Tarmogoyf and other big guys such as Korlash, Heir to Blackblade. A Profane Command from them can hurt, so just stay cool (and watch out for Tendrils of Corruption, as they may run it as well).

Post-board, bring in Distress, Profane Command, and if you want to, Extirpate. Withered Wretch will generally take care of Tarmogoyf, but if you make them discard something good early and don't want to see it again, this can help.

Martyr Control is your worst matchup. You'll need to bring in Distress and Extirpate out of the board, and you'll probably bring in Liliana Vess as well. Krosan Grip is also a necessity, because Martyr Control also runs Story Circle, the one card that can just kill this deck by itself. Not favorable by any means.

Black/Red Goblins is pretty much like playing against Kithkin, except since some of they're guys are black, your removal is less effective here, and they also pack a lot more removal (considering that Kithkin only uses Oblivion Ring, that's not saying much). You'll probably want to bring in Profane Command, but mostly, you'll have to just play this match right. Beware of Knucklebone Witch. If anyone is deserving of a Nameless Inversion, it's this guy.

DDTrees is tough, but if you can hit enough mana to Tendrils for 5 (for Doran, the Siege Tower), you should win that game, due to the high curve you'll hit and the extra life. Many of the creatures in this list are black or have high toughness, so your removal isn't just "point-and-shoot". It will take a little work to figure this match out. Also, keep in mind that Nameless Inversion lowers the toughness, and that's what their creatures will hit with if Doran is out. That can be vital information.

Blue/Black Teachings... oh man. My advice to you: if you want a quick game of Magic, do NOT play against this deck. My first playtest against this deck lasted an epic 85 minutes, and that was only for one game!

Beating it isn't easy... a two-out-of-three match with it is probably 45/55 for you. Extirpate is still great now, only now you need to hit their Recover spells and their Cryptic Commands as well as the deck's namesake, Mystical Teachings.

MaRo could print 20 of these off and
buy my house with them. Something
is wrong with that economy...
Distress, Liliana Vess, and most likely Profane Command come in here. Like I said, expect a long game. Also, if you get an Urza's Factory out, try to make a token every turn. It's the only way you'll keep up with theirs.

Now, unlike the pros who give out a decklist and then don't do anything with it, I plan to play to play this deck (or a modified version) at my States (Michigan: where the whether is always confusing). So if I'm wrong about it, I'll go down with anyone else. However, playtesting shows this to be a good list capable of beating any of the good decks (just not always 50/50+).

As far as Stromgald Crusader goes, this is THE list to run him in. Pro-White means hell for Kithkin, and being able to give it flying also makes it so Tarmogoyf and Treetop Village can't stop it (those treetops aren't tall enough, monkey!). Of course, he requires a heave black mana investment to make him stellar, but that's why you play Swamps.

Withered Wretch is, simply, a Zombie's way of dealing with Tarmogoyf (and not a bad one, if I may say so myself).

A Closing Thought(seize)

My message to you is this: if you're going to go rogue, now is the best time. The format is young, people are still evaluating cards, colors and tribes, and a lot of good decks are waiting to be made. It takes someone with a knack to make a deck that can become viable in tournament play, so go prove that you have that knack and make your idea known to the world.

The first big tournament for post-Lorwyn Standard is States, and I'll be looking forward to all of the kooky ideas that people come up with.

Remember the spirit of the rogue player, and good luck to all of you at States!


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