Unusual Choices and the National Championships

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The letter T!his past week showed the summer of 2011 a couple more National Championships. Their Top 8s featured a combination of established archetypes, new decks, and established archetypes trying new things and new cards.

Though Caw-Blade showed up multiple times in each National Championship Top 8, they were as a whole much more diverse than certain other Top 8s (say the US National Championship, with six Caw-Blade decks), and there seemed to be a great variation in the choices made even within the contexts of established decks.

Both Top 8s we will look at today (Great Britain and Canada) featured six different decks, with Caw-Blade and Red Deck variants doubling up in each. Let's see how they bore out!

Eldrazi Ramp

Daniel Royde's Eldrazi Ramp
Standard – Winner, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

The first thing that jumps out at us in this Top 8 is champion Daniel Royde's Mono-Green Eldrazi Ramp deck. Though we have seen a fair amount of action from Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle since the bannings of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, performances by onetime Primeval Titan peer Mono-Green Ramp have been fewer and farther between.

Royde's deck is absolutely chock full of mana: 28 of his 60 cards are lands, and he has a fair number of Joraga Treespeakers and Overgrown Battlements (and to a lesser extent, Green Sun's Zeniths) to boot.

Aside from individual customizations / modifications, Royde's deck functions at a baseline as many of these decks have for the last year or so: Early mana acceleration sets up; Summoning Trap defends against Counterspells.

Primeval Titan—whether hard-cast or a result of a lucky Trap—helps set up the specialty Eldrazi lands (Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin). With Eye of Ugin, a Mono-Green Ramp deck is never truly out of threats. You can always go and get Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre or, in a pinch, the "humble" Spellskite.

But as we've already said, there are a fair number of customizations going on in this deck that make it an atypical Eldrazi Ramp...


Eduardo Sajgalik's Caw-Blade
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

Eduardo's Caw-Blade is more conventional relative to the current card pool. Phantasmal Image is finding quite a bit of adoption in Caw-Blade lists, doing everything from copying the opponent's Squadron Hawk to pulling Caw-Blade players out of mana screw by pilfering a Solemn Simulacrum's abilities.

This sort of Caw-Blade has some respect for higher-end threats—Emeria Angel as well as some six-drops—but still runs main-deck Timely Reinforcements as a deterrent to Red Decks from the main. Note the presence of the near-ubiquitous Dismember main, and the continued use of Sword of Feast and Famine as the main-deck Equipment; Sajgalik supplements from the sideboard with a solo Sword of War and Peace.

Jamie Hannah's Caw-Blade
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

Hannah goes quite a different direction offensively with main-deck Mirran Crusader... and the full four, at that! Mirran Crusader of course dances past any Overgrown Battlements or even Primeval Titans that might present themselves, and can cause serious chaos in conjunction with any Sword.

Both decks run relatively high land counts (26-27 level), and have adopted Azure Mage tech out of the sideboard.

Red Decks

Dominic Penton's Red Deck Wins
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

Daniel Harborne's Red Deck Wins
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

Both decks are Chandra's Phoenix variants. That means that they run a bit burn heavy relative to certain other red builds in order to have a higher chance of buying back a lost Chandra's Phoenix.

That said, neither deck is all-in on the Chandra's Phoenix plan. Both ran a full eight fetch lands to help fuel Grim Lavamancer, and Penton went a little old school, doubling up the fetch land synergies by bringing back Plated Geopede (and, unrelated but still old-ish school, Kargan Dragonlord). Ember Hauler (as played by Harborne) has been the default Red Deck two-drop of choice since about March.

Both decks went with the full four copies of Shrine of Burning Rage—maybe the scariest Red Deck card in Standard—and gave a nod to Hero of Oxid Ridge, the consensus best solution to a world where white is defined by its ability to run Timely Reinforcements.

Blue-Black Control

Kevin Blake's Blue-Black Control
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

Kevin stripped down the creature count in Blue-Black Control relative to some recently discussed lists, culling the Solemn Simulacrums from Ali Aintrazi's main in favor of more control cards, including Praetor's Grasp, Spell Pierce, and Stoic Rebuttal.

In the vein of "cutting four-mana artifact creatures" we also don't see any Peace Strider support out of Blake's 'board.

Green-Blue Aggro-Control

William Dunn's Green-Blue Aggro-Control
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

William played arguably the most unique deck in either Top 8, a green-blue "good stuff" aggro-control deck combining. William's deck is basically good spells and better creatures, featuring mana acceleration and much the same Equipment advantage we see Caw-Blade trying to maintain, but also strange nuts like second-turn Beast Within... your land.

Skinshifter is a card that has been getting rave reviews from Hall of Famer Brian Kibler, and we see that in the Dunn deck; note that Skinshifter is a superb blocker even against Red, because you can always get the block in before going 0/8, even if the opponent has the burn spell. Skinshifter in Rhino mode has trample, making it a fine Swordsman, and Bird mode is actually bigger than a Squadron Hawk.

Garruk, Primal Hunter helps to make up for the fact that William's deck plays only 14 creatures; Garruk actually gains loyalty while spitting out Beasts.


Tim Pinder's Vampires
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Great Britain National Championship

The main innovation in this deck is the inclusion of Nantuko Shade—onetime Cadillac Black two-drop—in both main and side. Tim played Dark Tutelage main in order to help get ahead, his only red card in the starting 60 being Lightning Bolt.

Across the Atlantic, the Canada National Championship showed us a Top 8 that looked like this:

Twin Pod

Marc Anderson's Twin Pod
Standard – Winner, 2011 Canada National Championship

Marc played what can be considered the default blue-red-green Birthing Pod deck, Twin Pod. This deck, highly reminiscent of Aaron Nicoll's Australia National Championship deck, features both a standard Birthing Pod engine, and also the Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin infinite combo.

The advantage of this build relative to most other decks in the field (let alone other Birthing Pod decks) is the presence of a turn-three infinite kill (turn one Birds of Paradise, turn two Deceiver Exarch, turn three Splinter Twin the Deceiver Exarch, make lots of 1/4s, etc.); the downside relative to some other blue-red-green lists (notably, the one advocated by Patrick Chapin and Michael Jacob) is that Twin Pod offers a generally inferior Birthing Pod strategy.

As you can see, Marc only has one copy of most of his creature cards: one Acidic Slime, one Frost Titan at six, one Sea Gate Oracle, and so on. This is because he is taking up eight of his deck slots with combo pieces. So on the one hand, he can just come out and kill the opponent with a super sick two-card combination, but on the other hand, he doesn't have the elegant Hero of Oxid Ridge out-of-nowhere alpha strike kills, or the ability to lean on multiple Inferno Titans in a creature mirror.

Both strategies have their incentives—and the Exarch Twin combination is a big one!—so I think it is fair to say that neither blue-red-green Pod build is objectively superior to the other.


Marcel Zafra's Caw-Blade
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

Marcel played a conventional Caw-Blade deck very similar to the one that Eduardo Sajgalik fielded in Great Britain at the same time, with an identical creature set, nearly identical 27 lands, and very similar remaining 24 cards.

That said, Marcel's sideboard was a bit different, with no respect for Splinter Twin—neither Torpor Orb nor Spellskite anywhere—but a second Azure Mage.

Mani Davoudi's Caw-Blade
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

By contrast, Mani Davoudi played a fairly different Caw-Blade variant (while still falling under the macro umbrella of Caw-Blade). Mani ran main-deck Azure Mage as a powerful aggro-control card (solid threat against combo and control, but cheap enough that it will typically resolve), and Hero of Bladehold as a four-of in the creature suite. Hero of Bladehold has been likened to the "seventh" Titan—albeit a Titan that costs only four mana—for the power of its token-generating ability. A fine Sword-bearer with 4 toughness, Hero of Bladehold can end games quickly for Caw-Blade, rather than relegating its master into a long, drawn-out battle of sometimes-enhanced 1/1 creatures.

Red Decks

Ronald Be's Red Deck Wins
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

Paul MacKinnon's Red Deck Wins
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

The Canada Red Decks were a bit less Chandra's Phoenix–focused than their Great Britain counterparts; Ronald Be played only two copies of Chandra's Phoenix main, and Paul MacKinnon none at all!

Both decks ran the full eight fetch lands to help fuel Grim Lavamancer, and both decks dipped, at least a little bit, back to Kargan Dragonlord.

Between the various takes at red, Be had perhaps the most interesting innovation in main-deck Immolating Souleater. This creature, with its Phyrexian-mana activated ability, can pull a Red Deck's life total down so as to avoid the 6 life gained by Timely Reinforcements...

... and of course, when you get super lucky, it can hit for a million!

"Turn Four Titan"

Jeremie Ross-Latour's Turn Four Titan
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

Jeremie Ross-Latour went with a ramp / acceleration strategy that aims to put a fourth-turn Titan onto the battlefield (hence the name).

There are a couple of ways you can do this; one of them is by drawing two accelerators and hitting your land drops. For instance:

  1. Play Raging Ravine (one land).
  2. Play Mountain; tap Raging Ravine and Mountain to cast Rampant Growth, fetching a Swamp (three lands).
  3. Play a Dragonskull Summit; summon Solemn Simulacrum, which finds a Forest (five lands).
  4. Play Tectonic Edge; follow it up with a turn-four Titan.

Splinter Twin

Dan Lanthier's Splinter Twin
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

Lanthier's Splinter Twin deck is fairly reminiscent of a large chunk of the Twin decks you will encounter today... lower land count at 23, but buoyed by a large number of cantrips (Gitaxian Probe, Ponder, Preordain, Shrine of Piercing Vision)... No real other way to win beside setting up a combo kill.

Lanthier played Dragonmaster Outcast in his sideboard, which seems unusual to me, but he claimed it was "the best alternate win condition" available. Mutagenic Growth is there to foil Combust; you might not be able to counter it, but you can sure keep your Deceiver Exarch alive by pumping it past five.


Noah Long's Valakut
Standard – Top 8, 2011 Canada National Championship

Last but not least, we have Noah Long with Valakut.

There are a couple of different styles of Valakut; some of them have no creature removal at all main deck (maybe some Nature's Claims only), and others (like this one) will give a two-of nod to the spell Lightning Bolt, but leave most of the anti-beatdown stuff in the sideboard.

Running about twelve or even sixteen two-mana accelerators is pretty common; you will often see four Rampant Growth and four Explore; plus four copies of Green Sun's Zenith (which can act as a two-mana accelerator by finding Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves, or Joraga Treespeaker on turn two) and / or Overgrown Battlement. Long eschewed Overgrown Battlement and played only two copies of Green Sun's Zenith; that said, his version can only get expensive creatures. (Green Sun's Zenith is never faster than five mana, and will typically act as a seven-mana Titan proxy.) Instead, we see a return to Khalni Heart Expedition.

There is quite a bit of debate amongst Valakut players about which two-mana accelerators are good and which ones aren't... Overgrown Battlement seems pretty good to YT, as it is a potential blocker, but some players don't like giving the opponent an early Dismember target. Khalni Heart Expedition is a potential source of card advantage, but is the least consistent (what happens when you don't have ready lands for it?). Pretty much everyone agrees on Explore and Rampant Growth, though.

So where do these Championships leave us in terms of a metagame?

For players aiming for this weekend's Standard Grand Prix Pittsburgh, or the LCQ for next week's Pro Tour Philadelphia, there are—as there largely have been—a lot of options. You can play established decks like Valakut or Caw-Blade, or innovate new ones like Turn Four Titan or Green-Blue "good stuff." In a sense the lack of a truly dominant archetype is freeing, but in another sense... You really don't want to let your guard down.

I would recommend focused, active decks right now, because the wide-open-ness of the format makes it difficult for reactive decks to control so many different kinds of threats: little creatures like Goblin Guide; big creatures like Frost Titan; planeswalkers from Jace Beleren to Karn Liberated; artifacts like Sword of Feast and Famine; enchantments like Splinter Twin, Pyromancer Ascension, or Tempered Steel. There are just so many different things to worry about in terms of other people's plans, it seems simpler (for now) to concentrate on your own.

That said, it certainly isn't "wrong" to go control across the board. A control deck made Top 8 in Great Britain, and won in the USA a few short weeks ago.

You really can play anything.

Good luck, whichever route you pick.

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