s I might have mentioned last week, I got to spend this past weekend in Nashville, TN; manning the commentary booth of the StarCityGames.com Opens there with Joey Pasco of Yo! MTG Taps fame. It was a great time and an honor from my perspective, and it seems like viewers, for the most part, appreciated our efforts.
Additionally and in other news, I got to see, first-hand, some of the breakout decks of the upcoming Standard. Here is how the Top 8 bore out (and more on that in a moment):
Wolf Run Green
Brian Sondag's Wolf Run Ramp
Standard – Winner, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
Brian Sondag's Wolf Run Green deck was the winner of the Open, and probably the actual best deck of the tournament to boot (not actually the same thing, and not always connected when the dust clears). For dozens of reasons I believe Wolf Run Green will also be the breakout deck of the 2011s this weekend, and that many of you at home who are undecided (or don't want to play some kind of Snapcaster Mage / Liliana of the Veil deck, because you despise countermagic or something) should take particular notice.
How does this deck work?
Wolf Run Green looks to be the true inheritor to Valakut. And as these things often go, the son is in many ways an improved version of the father. No, Wolf Run Green does not actually have the overpowered land Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle; as such, it does not have the automatic wins facilitated just by possessing access to that card.
It is honestly poised to be better in every other way.
The first and most obvious improvement is in the structure of Wolf Run Green's mana. With Valakut, you basically had a mono-green (or green splashing red) deck... that played double-digit basic Mountains on top of four copies of Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle (a card that both enters the battlefield tapped and does not produce green mana), and some mix of generally more than four copies of Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse.
Am I the only one who was really bothered by a green mana ramp deck with access to Explore / Rampant Growth / Khalni Heart Expedition / Cultivate / "whatever it wanted" that was stuck playing such a land base (and in particular the Evolving Wilds part)? Yes, you could get the dumbest wins, but good players would often be saddled with not-good limitations and inconsistencies in the early game, not to mention the uncomfortable prospect of actually having the critical sixth land—but its being a Valakut or Terramorphic Expanse—on the (ideally) Primeval Titan turn.
Wolf Run Green does not have any of these limitations. It is very much a green ramp deck, and its mana base is constructed accordingly: lots of Forests; lots of lands that enter the battlefield nice and straight; great access to M12 and Scars of Mirrodin / dual lands; and its specialty cards (all of which enter the battlefield untapped). Wolf Run Green—unlike its predecessor—is a soccer team where all the players are running in the same direction. Maybe they don't have the star finisher, but at least they are all aligned.
So what does it do?
There is the "regular" stuff. Yes, yes—this is a green acceleration / big mana deck. Rampant Growth and Green Sun's Zenith (for Birds of Paradise) help jump the natural progression of one-land-per-one-turn. At the high end, you hit Wurmcoil Engine and Primeval Titan (and the numbers there are carefully tuned). Creator Brian Sondag told me he started with four Primeval Titans but pulled back to include the extra Wurmcoil Engine in respect for aggressive decks.
"Anyway," Brian reminded us, "with Green Sun's Zenith you have a virtual seven Primeval Titans."
So what about that aggro matchup?
Sondag keyed in on the same something Hall of Famer Brian Kibler and many other green mages keyed in on: Viridian Emissary. Viridian Emissary seems like a perfect card for a format that has been—to date—defined by fast beatdown decks like Tempered Steel and Red Deck Wins versus slower Esper / Solar Flare variants. Viridian Emissary isn't a Human, so it can block Stromkirk Noble. It is very annoying to trade with, and painful to destroy with a burn spell. Viridian Emissary can be even worse for Liliana of the Veil decks. Make the opponent sacrifice a creature? You aren't going to get Primeval Titan; not with this little one in play.
Rounding out Wolf Run Green's capabilities, we have the versatile Beast Within. There have been many decks that have tried to play Beast Within in the past, but few have been quite as optimized to take advantage of it as this one. Almost everything in Wolf Run Green is bigger than the resulting Beast, and Slagstorm lets you mop up whatever 3/3 side effects happen to be lying around post-Beast Within.
So what about that name? Kessig Wolf Run is a mere two-of in this deck. The goal of this deck is to use Primeval Titan to search up at lest one Kessig Wolf Run and (over time) all the copies of Inkmoth Nexus. You already have a Primeval Titan, and coming back from being attacked by one of those isn't exactly easy. However, with the Primeval Titan pumping more and more lands onto the battlefield, you can easily threaten a lethal Inkmoth Nexus with just one or two attacks.
One thing to consider when playing against Wolf Run Green: If it attacks with Primeval Titan, very likely you will be facing all four copies of Inkmoth Nexus. Many decks (e.g., Solar Flare) have fewer than four relevant point removal cards. Therefore you have to plan very carefully or you will eventually lose to ten (or more) poison counters.
One of the most impressive comebacks I have ever seen was showcased by Christian Valenti, who managed to draw all three of his Doom Blades, plus the Snapcaster Mage necessary to re-buy one of them, ultimately allowing him to handle all four infectious creature-lands. As tempting as it may be at the time to "gain tempo" (or something), consider very carefully before you throw a removal spell (that can take out an Inkmoth Nexus later) into the graveyard.
While Sondag's deck is unambiguously innovative and powerful, Caleb Durward's deck looks like one thing but is in fact something very different. While it looked like Brian's deck was tops, I can see the argument for Caleb's deck; it's so different and so efficient at what it does. At worst, Durward's darlings-killing Blue-Black Control deck was the second-best build of the Open.
Caleb Durward's Blue-Black Control
Standard – 6th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
How does this deck work?
It looks like many other Blue-Black Control decks... until you realize it doesn't play the same cards at all. Caleb completely eschewed Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy—standouts and even four-ofs in so many other blue-black-based decks (Solar Flare variants and otherwise). Caleb sees those cards as having too little impact on the battlefield; he built his deck to crush aggro.
This deck features all different kinds of one-for-one removal spells—Dismember, Doom Blade, Go for the Throat... even Victim of Night, but not too many of any one kind—the main theme between them being instant-speed access and synergy with Snapcaster Mage.
Because he doesn't have Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy, Caleb has to lean on Snapcaster Mage more for card advantage (as you can see in other decks, Solar Flare might only play two copies). That said, blue decks still need to draw cards, and Caleb's can do so without Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy.
Build Your Own Mulldrifter
How does the returning Divination work in this deck?
Essentially Divination is a two-for-one for only three mana; Think Twice is a two-for-one but costs five total mana. There are lots of arguments you can make for one draw spell or the other (they are both Constructed playable), but for the purposes of this deck it is more useful to focus on what is great about this card in this deck.
Because Divination draws two cards for just one more mana, you can theoretically make up the functionality of all four copies of Think Twice with only two Divinations. On top of that, you can later give Divination flashback with Snapcaster Mage in order to "build your own Mulldrifter." Giving Think Twice or Forbidden Alchemy Flashback... um... they already have flashback. Sure, you can gain some mana efficiency... but when you apply a Snapcaster Mage to a Divination, you actually net some real extra card advantage.
As awesome as it is—or perhaps part of what helps to drive its awesomeness—Caleb's deck relies on some gimmicks to deal with other control decks. It looks like a Blue-Black Control deck, but really only has a couple of Mana Leaks and the one Divination main. Caleb made Top 8 in part due to the tentative play of opponents trying to outwit Counterspells (where there weren't many). Additionally, Nihil Spellbomb is a surprisingly strategic cantrip here. It is important in the main to fight Unburial Rites, opposing Snapcaster Mages, and other flashback cards, and it also plays baby Think Twice, helping to cycle through the deck while doing something useful.
Still? Quite spicy.
Solar Flare Variants
Christian Valenti's Solar Flare
Standard – 2nd place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
John Medina's Solar Flare
Standard – 4th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
Trey Viers's Solar Flare
Standard – 7th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
David Thomas's Solar Flare
Standard – 8th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
Today's Solar Flare variants are pretty consistent with each other; however different builds have different unique functionality.
Phantasmal Image (1+)
Phantasmal Image is a great combination with Sun Titan. It only costs two mana and is therefore an eligible target for Sun Titan, at which point it typically becomes yet another Sun Titan. Remember, Phantasmal Image is a heck of an answer to Thrun, the Last Troll; hexproof can't fool the "legend rule."
Unburial Rites, Liliana of the Veil
The black spells appear in some Solar Flare decks, but not in others. The two work well together (Liliana of the Veil both of us; set up a fat man + Unburial Rites; etc.). Unburial Rites is typically better in attrition matches, and can speed you up by a turn or two (e.g., turn three Forbidden Alchemy burying Sun Titan, Phantasmal Image, and Unburial Rites; turn four 12+ power on two active Titans.... must / is).
Liliana can be a dual-edged sword. She is good creature defense (but not against Red Deck Wins or Viridian Emissary); she is a primo control killer... except when the opponent is discarding dead creature removal or flashback spells. Often a game-breaker... but I have also seen mages pass without activating any of her abilities.
Believe it or not, the Top 8 featured Solar Flare decks with fewer than four Mana Leaks. In fact, Jonathan Medina, for instance, had not a one!
Solar Flare is powerful (as is, admittedly, getting a Phantasmal Image and explaining to the opponent that, yes, we actually have both Sun Titans in play), but it can falter when it is not actually doing the best stuff in the game. For example, Titans are its top end but it can be out-Titaned by, say, Wolf Run Green's ability to set up the Nexus kill.
Brian Braun-Duin's White-Blue Blade
Standard – 5th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
You can take away a deck's Stoneforge Mystic, rotate its Squadron Hawk, and deprive it of the best planeswalker in the history of cardboard... but apparently you can't keep a good Sword down.
Described by some as the detritus of the last round of extirpations and expirations, the White-Blue Blade deck still adheres to the core principles of Caw-Blade (just now minus the "Caw" part). Blade Splicer is a legitimate thematic inheritor to the tradition of Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk, being a white creature that goes and gets another artifact and/or creature (and in this case, both, actually) in a single-card package. We have seen many of the other cards in play in previous X-Blade variations throughout the last couple of months; for the most part they are still good, and for the better part—especially in this sea of Solar Flare black point removal and/or Primeval Titan big green guys—sticking a Sword of Feast and Famine is still game.
If the early weeks of the Open Series are any indication, we will see more white-blue mages erring on the side of big Solar Flare haymakers than sliding in value creatures, but I for one was cheering for Brain Braun-Duin to make Top 8, to help punctuate the shape of the format and to showcase the concept of good cards still being good despite fluctuations in popularity elsewhere. Blade still has impressive effects on the planeswalker and finisher fronts, good answers to creature beatdown and burn, a good clock thanks to Swords... and often more than one of these at the same time.
Again, my guess is that we will see more Seachrome Coasts supporting Solar Flare than Sword of Feast and Famine, but the old fave is still alive and kicking. Ish.
Red Deck Wins
Nick Veccie's Red Deck Wins
Standard – 3rd place, StarCityGames.com Open in Nashville, Tennessee
RDW did not follow up on last week's impressive all-red finals, but Veccie still finished strong with what should continue to be a pillar of the format. We talked extensively about various sub-archetypes last time, so instead of rehashing all that, I'll end this were with a respectful word of caution.
If you feel, at this week's 2011s, that you are stabilizing against RDW, and are about to tap out for a big six to take over, look at your life total, ask your opponent how many cards he or she has, refer to your own mana and possible countermagic access... and think (at least) twice before doing anything rash. Because I saw Nick drop the solo Traitorous Blood squarely into the center of the table against a tapped-out Sun Titan in the feature match area, and it was absolutely filthy. If memory serves, his opponent had attacked the previous turn with Gideon Jura. Respeck.
Wish me luck this weekend, as I make my first Planeswalker Points run at Archmage (currently a Level 44 Battlemage! Rah!) at the 2011 New York State Championships. Last year New York debuted the star-to-be Nick Spagnolo and his archetype-to-be, Blue-Black Control. I think we will have a hell of a brawl this year, and I am eager to defend my *ahem* 2006 State title.
For more about the 2011s, check out their website.