If you wanted to build a competitive deck for today's metagame, where would you start? I'd start with the metagame itself. After all, the goal of a competitive deckbuilder is to produce something that has good matchups against as much of the format as possible. If you're playing at FNM, you need to beat the Slivers+Spiders.deck that Fat Tony brings every week. If you're playing at a Pro Tour, you'll need to beat the Dralnu deck that Pierre Canali was spotted with.
The metagame is a tremendously important part of deckbuilding, and it's often forgotten. I was pondering that during my last deckbuilding session. Life! with Saffi, Crypt Champion, and Essence Warden had failed miserably the day before, and I needed new ideas. Luckily I was blessed with another 55-minute-long deckbuilding session today, with soothing background noise provided by my electromagnetics professor.
Having no new and exciting ideas, I decided to build a control deck. No clue what type of control, but a control deck nonetheless. I had a lot of choices to make: Do I want to focus on removal, permission, tempo/board control, or something else? What color(s) should I use, and what should my win conditions be? For that matter, how was I going to survive past turn four? I had no idea. Luckily I had the ultimate cheat sheet: I know the Standard metagame.
Building the Ultimate Deck. Step 1: The Metagame.
The most popular deck style right now is Green-based aggro. To be a bit more specific, it's UG aggro. Every control player out there needs an answer to Call tokens, Silhana Ledgewalker, Spectral Force, and Giant Solifuge. Trading 1-1 often isn't a good idea. Oh yeah, and before I forget, Plaxmanta and Mana Leak make life harder than it has to be.
But there's more to aggro than just Green. Boros isn't the hot product it used to be, although I'd argue it's still the best pure aggro deck in the format. The Boros critters aren't that threatening (at least, not to a deck that can handle turn 3 Spectral Force). What IS scary, are all the burn spells. The lots and lots of burn spells. In general, burn range is about 12 life. That means a control player has to either stay above 12 the whole game, or figure out a way to negate the burn. Of the two, staying over 12 doesn't seem very realistic.
There are a *lot* of different control decks out there. Dralnu, Beach-House, Tron, Firemane, and that odd little UB deck that shows up everywhere. Since Dralnu is the most popular control deck on my list, I decided to focus my anti-control suite on winning that matchup. What makes Dralnu intimidating is that it plays 90 million counterspells. Aside from finding a good hoser to beat Dralnu players with, I need a way to make it resolve. This puts a real firm limit on the possible strategies I can play.
Also, whatever my anti-control strategy becomes, I know I want it to be flexible. After all, I'm not trying to design an anti-Dralnu strategy, I'm trying to design an anti-control strategy that's effective against Dralnu. Having a strategy that beats Dralnu in addition to Pickles, Tron, and Angelfire will earn me a lot more trips to the winners column than one that only beats Dralnu.
The metagame is fairly devoid of combo at the moment. Dragonstorm is still around, but it's been tanking in popularity. I guess BGDredge qualifies as combo (and it's a deck on the rise). Regardless, I decided to focus on Dragonstorm since (at the time of deck construction) it was more popular than dredge. It's also more of a "pure" combo deck that kills you in one turn, rather than a deck that does something really broken and hopes you can't recover. To beat the dragons, I'll need a way to keep 4 Bogardan Hellkites from hitting the table. Either that, or I'll need a way to survive it when they do.
Even after handling all the top tier aggro, control, and combo decks, there's one more important deck category to beat. Jank. Even at the Pro Tour or GP level, you're sure to find crap like Harmonize-fueled land destruction, Black-based Firemane, and whatever the hell people are calling that Stuffy Doll pile of junk. (In case you were wondering, I'm calling it "that Stuffy Doll Pile of Junk"). It really sucks to be piloting some ultra-tech metagame deck, then get killed round one by some kid on his way to a 1-4 drop with a precon. Trust me, I've done it.
Building the Ultimate Deck. Step 2: "Pure Strategery" (Because misspelled words drive the editors nuts. [*grumble grumble* -Ed.])
Here's a spot for a useful deckbuilding exercise. Take the metagame analysis above, and try to find the important parts. Imagine you were creating the deck; what strategy would you adopt, and why? Once you've got a strategy, try to pick a color scheme and a win condition or two. Once you've got all that, finish reading the article.
After looking at the metagame, here's what I noticed:
1: Removal is key. The Green decks have almost no burn, and (the good ones) generally don't have haste either. Good removal will go a long ways towards winning the aggro matchups. This forces the deck into either Black or White. Red, Green, and Blue just aren't good enough at putting critters into the graveyard.
2: Feel The Burn? If so, that's bad. Creature removal only goes so far. Like I said above, Boros can reliably throw about 12 points of burn. To combat this, my deck will either need to counter/discard the burn spells before they see my life total, or prevent the damage/gain life to offset them. Black and White again, but Blue would be very useful here as well. Green has some life-gain, but not really enough to be significant.
3: The way to win a control mirror is to out-mana and out-card-advantage your opponent. That's basic magic, but it's fundamentally important. My new deck will have to pace the card drawing of Dralnu (or, even more dangerously, Tron). I'll have to do this even if he's using counters on my draw spells. Basically I've got three options. Option one is to be sure by the time I'm casting draw spells, he won't have permission left in hand (see also: discard spells). Option two is to copy the Dralnu strategy, and make both players fight to resolve draw spells (see also: permission). Option three is to load my deck with so many threats that he won't even be worried about my draw spells resolving (see also: aggro). My options here are Black and Blue.
4: The way win a control mirror is to out-mana and out-card-advantage your opponent. That's basic magic, but it's fundamentally important. Déjà vu? A little bit, but it's worth saying twice. This time around, let's talk mana. To out-mana the opponent, I'll need to consistently make land drops. Even with card draw spells I'd never run less than 24 lands. Urzatron and storage lands are the best way to get lots of mana from a single land. I wasn't yet willing to commit to 12 colorless mana sources, but a few Karoo lands and a Storage or two seemed like very good ideas.
5: There's lots of removal in the format right now. One of the reasons I was looking for a new deck is that I got tired of walking my Teferi directly into a Sudden Death. Urza's Factory is a good win condition that's immune to removal, although I was hoping for something a bit less painfully slow. Besides, most control players have some sort of answer for Factory.
My first four points trim my color options quite nicely. I need to have either White or Black (possibly both), and Blue makes a good add on. My fifth point put me squarely into White, since Sacred Mesa is exactly what I wanted at that point. Since mono-White seems more or less unplayable, I was going to have to add either Blue or Black. After some thinking, I decided Blue was a stronger addition than Black.
White has me covered on points 1, 2, 4, and 5. All my second color had to do is give me good control matchups. Discard is typically very effective against control decks, although the current discard in Standard is rather pathetic. By contrast, the permission in Standard is as good as it's been since the era of Wake and Psychatog. Yeah, I thought it was a pretty easy decision too.
My first draft of the deck was god-awful, and looked something like this:
Building the Ultimate Deck, Step 3: Drafts and Testing
If I saw that decklist in the forums, or on a strategy article, I'd hammer it without mercy. A deck with lots of counters should NEVER tap out on turn 3 for Compulsive Research (unless you can "flash" it at the opponent's end of turn). Only playing two copies of Teferi seems... suicidal, and what's up with Mystical Teachings? They're ruining the entire manabase, and can tutor for nothing but counterspells and Teferi.
So why was it my first draft? Because I'm not very good at creating a deck from scratch. I can't look at all my metagame analysis and produce a good list on the very first try. Hey, I'm not Jon Finkle. What I can do is test the hell out of a bad deck and make improvements to it. I knew the problems with my first draft, what I didn't know is how I wanted to fix them. So I played the deck, and made changes based on my results. The deck cycled through about four progressions in the first 48 hours, and took about a week and a half or so to stabilize. As it stands now, here's the decklist I'm using.
|Mesa Control by HKKIDMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
3 Mouth of Ronom
3 Azorius Chancery
1 Flagstones of Trokair
1 Calciform Pools
4 Hallowed Fountain
7 Snow Covered Island
2 Snow Covered Plains
Stuff that Deals with Creatures
4 Porphyry Nodes
3 Wrath of God
2 Story Circle
3 Spell Snare
2 Mana Leak
4 Rune Snag
4 Think Twice
2 Careful Consideration
3 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
2 Sacred Mesa
1 Wrath of God
1 Story Circle
2 Shadow of Doubt
3 Tormod's Crypt
2 Calciform Pools
Building the Ultimate Deck, Step 4: Know Your Matchups
Green Aggro (Mostly UG, but also includes mono-G, and BG)
Green aggro of all forms is a very winnable matchup. As noted above, Green is all about sending 20 points to the dome, and doing it with green creatures. The combination of Nodes, Wrath, and Circle really hurts this strategy. Desert isn't bad either, forcing mana critters and other 1-toughness guys to stay behind until/unless they get pumped. Also, it's important to note that Porphyry Nodes doesn't target, thus it can hit the likes of Giant Solifuge and Silhana Ledgewalker.
Sideboarding depends a bit on which specific green deck they're playing. Usually I'll pull 3 Rewind, and 1 Commandeer. I'll add in 1 Wrath of God, 1 Story Circle, 2 Disenchant, and a pair of Mouth of Ronoms. You can risk keeping Disenchant sitting in your sideboard if you never saw Auras in game 1 (in that case, pull 1 Rewind and 1 Commandeer), but I don't recommend that. Most green mages seem to mistakenly think Leyline of the Lifeforce is good against Dralnu. It isn't... but it's pretty good against UW. Even without Leyline, though, you're likely to see some sort of artifact and/or enchantments out of any competitive green deck.
Red Aggro (Specifically Boros, although this applies to a lesser degree against Gruul, Zoo, and mono-R)
Of the aggro matchups, Boros is without a doubt the most challenging (unless you include Dredge). Boros is extra hard if the guy across the table has pulled the trigger on Soltari Priest, choosing to use Serra Avenger instead. The extra toughness makes it immune to Desert, while the extra power makes it more dangerous in general. Story Circle naming red will help a lot, especially if you remember to keep your white mana available. They usually can't deal with an active Sacred Mesa, but they CAN burn you to death if you tap out to create lots of tokens. Overall, the Boros player has an edge, but if you respect the burn you'll be fine.
The sideboarding strategy here is the same as it is against Green. Bring in the removal, bring out the slow stuff. In general, I pull 2 Rewind for Wrath of God and Story Circle. No need for artifact/enchantment removal here, since Boros doesn't play 'em.
It's hard to really get a fix on the Dralnu matchup, and to be honest I'm not really sure who is favored here. In general, I was heavily favored for the first two or three games, while my testing opponents got a feel for my deck. At that point, player skill seemed to be a bigger factor than the deck itself, since typically when we traded decks it was the same *player* and not the same deck that was doing most of the winning.
Dralnu is well equipped to handle all the threats in a UW deck, but you are likewise prepared to deal with all of his. Neither player can afford to let Teferi resolve (much like the Dralnu Mirror), since he invalidates counterspells. In the unfortunate case that a Teferi Does resolve, both players still have an "out" (Sudden Death for them, and Mouth of Ronom for you).
Aside from keeping his Teferi off the table, your big goal is to resolve Sacred Mesa. Mesa is a much stronger win condition than his non-Teferi ones (Skeletal Vampire, Urza's Factory, and Dralnu, Lich Lord). If it sticks (as in, resolves, then doesn't bite a quick Repeal), you should be heavily favored. Aside from the aforementioned Repeal, there's not much for the Dralnu player to do about your Mesa. In testing, a resolved Sacred Mesa generally trumped a resolved Teferi... but there's a lot of other factors like the number of Deserts, white mana totals, and the ability to flash Skeletal Vampire.
After game one, I'll bring in both copies of Calciform Pools and all four Annexes. I'll take out 1 Desert, 3 Wrath, and 2 Story Circle. Remember up above when I said mana advantage wins control mirrors? Twice? I wasn't kidding. By going up to 26 lands (three of them storage lands, 3 of them bounce lands), and 4 Annexes I'm hoping to generate a massive land advantage. The strategy is to use that mana advantage to force either Teferi or Sacred Mesa through a counter wall.
As I said, I'm not really sure which deck the matchup favors. It seems to be almost even, and heavily in favor of the person who makes better plays.
Non-Dralnu Control (Angelfire, Beach-House, Tron, etc.)
In these matchups, you are basically a Dralnu player with 3 copies of Damnation. In general, you are favored against Angelfire and Tron, while Beach-House is highly dependant on the other guy's deck. Angelfire is the easiest of the above decks. They have little/no permission, and the back half of Boom//Bust is the only way for them to deal with Sacred Mesa. As long as you use your permission wisely this matchup is rather easy. Name red with your Story Circle. It won't stop Demonfire, but it will stop most of his other finishers.
Tron is more difficult than Angelfire, but still is favorable. He can lock you completely out of the game with Teferi + Spellburst, so don't let that happen. It's wise to let Think Twice and Compulsive Research resolve, allowing you to save your permission for his business spells. The exception is Rune Snag, which you want to use on the first available target. He's got far more mana, but you've got far more permission. Both Teferi and Mesa are able to go all the way. Beware, he has Faith's Fetters for your Mesa, so hold it in hand until you are ready.
Beach-House varies greatly depending on what's in the opponent's deck. A dedicated anti-Dralnu suite with Castigate, Persecute and company is very effective against UW as well. On the other hand, if he's focused more on smashing aggro than control, he'll have difficulty dealing 20 damage, especially past a Story Circle. Between Mortify, Faith's Fetters, Sudden Death, and Damnation he's got plenty of answers to all your win conditions. The last time I played this matchup he resolved a turn 2 Phyrexian Arena, then decked himself with it. He has a distinct advantage here, but unless he presses it correctly you can literally go through his entire deck without losing.
For the Dragonstorm player to win, he needs to Gigadrowse all your blue mana sources, then go off once they're all safely tapped. There are two effective ways to combat Gigadrowse. Firstly, you can resolve a copy of Teferi. This takes away the End-of-Turn-Gigadrowse, and forces him to try it during his main phase. Typically he won't have enough mana, and will try to go off without the giga-protection. The second strategy is to sit on your Rewinds. Let the first four Gigadrowse copies go through, Rewind the fifth, and you've got yourself five untapped lands.
Either way, the goal is to have blue mana open when he tries to go off. You're now in a position to counter his mana acceleration and he won't be able to reach 9 mana with storm to kill you. Also important to note is that a Story Circle naming red is really bad news for him.
Games 2 and 3 I'll go -4 Nodes -2 Desert, +2 Shadow of Doubt, +2 Annex +2 Calciform Pools. Shadow of Doubt "counters" all copies of Dragonstorm, AND draws a card for my trouble. Annex usually isn't very useful, but Nodes is completely worthless. I try to Annex storage lands, since it both makes it harder for him to hit 9 mana, and it makes it harder for the Gigadrowse.
Overall this is an easily winnable matchup, and heavily favors UW.
Building the Ultimate Deck. Step 5: Improvements
The decklist I've provided is what I refer to as a "workable draft." It's got more than enough testing time to dominate your local FNM, although I'd be a little hesitant to play it at a high-skill tournament like Nationals (or even Regionals, for that matter). Obviously I can't give you a play-by play of all my testing time, but if you want to start tinkering with the deck, here's a few important things you shouldn't do.
- Don't alter the Sacred Mesa count. Even though Mesa only costs 3 mana to play, you need six or more before it has a big impact on the game. Multiples clog up your hand something fierce, but you really badly want to see at least one copy of it per game. Two is the perfect number, even for control mirrors.
- Don't ever go below 2 copies of Teferi. I personally think that three is the correct number, but I guess I could understand using only 2.
- If you play Remand, the avenging angry god of Draw-Go will strike you dead. When I say that, what I mean is that you'll lose lots of games. Remand is only for tempo-control decks like Tron, where one extra turn and 2 extra cards can lead to really big things happening, before the remanded card ever gets cast again. Mana Leak is far superior for a Draw-Go style deck like this one.
- Don't splash a third color. Black will (essentially) turn you into a Dralnu-Mesa hybrid, and my experience with it proved highly un-productive. Red essentially turns you into a Firemane deck. It improves the Boros-Gruul-Zoo matchup, but in return it makes control mirrors far more difficult. I don't really see any compelling reason to splash Green other than Loxodon Hierarch on the sideboard. Maybe it's just me but splashing a third color to sideboard one card doesn't really seem very strong.
If you do want to tinker with my deck, I have a few suggestions. A word of caution: I've not yet tested these ideas myself, because if I had, the current decklist would reflect that. However, here's a few things I'm either in the process of testing, or would like to test soon.
- I keep randomly wanting to make room for Repeal maindeck. That's not true, the feeling is never random. Usually my wish for Repeal is triggered by something like a resolved Phyrexian Arena or when Mouth of Ronom gets pointed at my Teferi. Regardless, repeal functions as an "out" for bad situations, and I *badly* want two or three of them maindeck. One option I'm considering is to play three copies of repeal, one replacing Commandeer, one replacing Think Twice and one as my 61st card
- I want to make room for Urza's Factory somewhere. It's too strong of a card not to play in a deck like this. The hard part is figuring out where to put it. The white-producing lands cannot be cut (if anything the deck needs more white sources), because the deck needs them for Story Circle and Sacred Mesa. Cutting an Island is possible, but the deck really wants by turn 3, to bluff Cancel if nothing else. I think the correct decision is to remove one of the colorless lands, I'm just not sure which one. I'm leaning towards going to only two copies of Mouth of Ronom, but I'm not sure.
- Faiths' Fetters on the sideboard seems like it would be a good choice against aggro. The aggro matchups are already decent, but it's still possible to lose if they get a good draw, or just plain out-play you. Fetters isn't completely necessary, but they'll greatly cut down on the number of losses due to bad luck, and taking luck out of the game is always a good thing.
- BGDredge-Reanimator rips this deck to shreds. Even with 3 copies of Tormod's Crypt this is not a favorable matchup. As far as I can tell, there are two moves to make here. The first is to go with Jotun Grunt, who is highly efficient graveyard hate, and a decent beater, too. The other is make room for Academy Ruins, allowing for Tormod's Crypt recursion. Personally I think Grunt is the stronger play. Without dredge cards and a huge graveyard, the BG deck falls apart.
- The solo copy of Commandeer is something I've been unsure about. As my teammates have (repeatedly) pointed out, it's a very random card without Mystical Teachings to find it. A lot of times, a cheaper counterspell is all you need. On the other hand, Commandeering something important has won me games where I was otherwise buried. If I do pull the trigger on Commandeer it'll probably be for the third copy of Mana Leak. I wanted an extra turn 2 counter anyways.
Building the Ultimate Deck. Step 6: Final Analysis
If you still aren't convinced, here's the reasons why you should play Mesa Control. The deck plays and feels very similar to Dralnu, and indeed has similar strong and weak matchups. However, the Dimir family steamroller has a glaring weakness that green aggro decks have exploited - namely, it has a difficult time dealing with a resolved Silhana Ledgewalker or Giant Solifuge. By playing 7 maindeck removal spells that kill Ledgewalker and Solifuge, in addition to Story Circle, Mesa Control does not have the same vulnerability. As a matter of fact, while Mesa Control does have weaknesses, none of the decks that are currently tier 1 are in position to exploit them. This makes it an incredibly strong choice in today's metagame, and one which I would feel confidant playing at any tournament from the FNM level up to the Pro Tour.