Profitable Differentiation

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The letter M!ost of you realize by now that the vast majority of Top Decks articles consist of overviews and descriptions of the world's—the (relevant) metagame's—you know, top decks. Now, working on a column like this is actually more challenging than it might sound.

How is it challenging? (The cynics among you might ask.) Haven't you been at this (or writing like this) for something like fifteen years?


And that, in and of itself, is a big part of what makes it challenging.

You see, if all someone wanted to do were to copy and paste the most recent deck lists into an article, that probably wouldn't be so difficult... However for me, the challenges are to 1) keep it fun (for myself, and hopefully for everyone else), and 2) to keep it interesting (because copy/pasted deck lists aren't really that interesting, in and of themselves). The former is why you will sometimes see, I dunno, an ode to a hateful artifact written to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; and the latter is the push, shove, and mover that crafted this introduction.

You see, sometimes you get to go over a decklist (or eight) and it is actually loads of fun!

Case in point:

Timothy Jansen's Grixis Control
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

A deck list like Jansen's is like an early Christmas present for Standard-metagame-columnist types. It is just so chock-full of different.

Now superficially you can align it to what Patrick Chapin and Jon Finkel played at the World Championships.

(In case you don't know about what I am talking about you can follow along via the following video, starring two of my favorite collaborators.)

...However, that would be really superficial, and not particularly useful.

Yes, Jansen played Grixis (the Chapin fav), and yes, he summoned Olivia Voldaren, "the best six-drop in the format" according to Patrick. Chances are strong that Jansen was strongly influenced by Patrick's deck. (I mean, he even played fast Galvanic Blasts to pair with his Snapcaster Mages, despite having none of the Precursor Golems that gave the Worlds-era Grixis its easy access to Metalcraft).

But that would really shortchange Jansen, and not really do a great job of talking about what makes his deck interesting, and possibly super effective.

For one, this is a blue-black deck splashing red, not a black-red deck splashing blue. Ergo, Tim not only played the full four copies of Snapcaster Mage, but aligned his mana base in such a way as to support triple main-deck Dissipates. Moreover—despite buying into Olivia, sure—Tim's not-base-red deck didn't buy fully into the Chapin tech of Desperate Ravings (more on that later, though), and he ran the more common Think Twice instead.

Now lots of these blue instants and flash spells are old hat by this point in the format. Dissipate, Mana Leak, Think Twice... etc. What is super spicy is actually from the black side. I mean check out those sorceries!

Life's Finale

Life's Finale | Art by Svetlin Velinov

An interesting criticism of the format at this point is that blue control decks—despite having access to Snapcaster Mage, one of the strongest blue creatures of all time—may be at an all-time low in terms of efficacy. White-Blue Humans decks, Green-Red Ramp decks, and even those traitorous blue-based aggro- or aggro-control decks keying on a first-turn Delver of Secrets are said to pose too many threats for controlling blue.

Life's Finale is a very interesting response to that macro-criticism. How does the math change when you can not only "Wrath" away some creatures to generate card advantage... but also take out three Primeval Titans as well (and remember, the original version of Wolf Run only ran three). How about when you can buy it back with Snapcaster Mage? I mean something like this really gets the old wheels a-turnin', am I right? I think it would be great to see more Life's Finales!

Sorin's Vengeance

Is "ka-blammo" a word? Because that's all I can think of when I see Sorin's Vengeance. Sorin's Vengeance deals 10, most players have, say, 20; the deck plays four copies of Snapcaster Mage... math.

All in all, a very fun deck with interesting and thought-provoking technologies. All in all, a great way to start the column.

Jansen's deck was from the most recent Open Series event, where he finished 8th. That event's Top 8 had a couple more great / fun / innovative card choices. For example...

thepchapin @fivewithflores Notice anything "interesting" about Kyle Zimmerman's U/R Delver deck in the top 4 of the SCG Open...?

In fact there are all kinds of interesting things to talk about in Kyle Zimmerman's Delver deck!

Kyle Zimmerman's Blue-Red Delver
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

We have of course seen a couple of decks like this since the release of InnistradDelver of Secrets being a superb, potentially 3/2 flying force of fury playable on turn one—but Zimmerman has hybridized tech from a number of different sources.

Desperate Ravings

This is a card that is poised to be remembered as a Preordain-level card selection spell. It is like Think Twice but can impact the game in much more dramatic fashion. From the standpoint of pure card advantage, Desperate Ravings is about equal to Think Twice, but with more potential upside. For instance, you can discard a Chandra's Phoenix, then rebuy it. You kinda sorta got the Chandra's Phoenix for free. Or you can set up a Snapcaster Mage. Or you can not cast it at all.

That is the real elegance of the card: When you want to improve your hand it typically does more work than Think Twice (for instance, if you keep a two-land hand you have twice the chance to draw a land, but are only 1/X to discard that land). But if your hand is already strong, you can save Desperate Ravings for another time; you don't have to cast it, just because you have the mana.

Druidic Satchel

Originally innovated by Reid Duke, then paid forward by Sean McKeown and others, I feel this card is something special. It is like a Jace the opponent can't attack. It works with Ponder, and lasts longer than Ponder (generating an advantage throughout the whole game). Its ability to gain life can help you win a race or come back in a mirror, and its ability to put lands onto the battlefield is card advantage, pure, simple, and green in flavor (something a blue-red deck is not likely to have otherwise). Going long, its ability to get lands off the top of your deck can help you transform Delver of Secrets more consistently, and of course the same keeps you drawing spells—rather than lands—without really losing the utility of more mana / land drops as you proceed through the game.

Dennis Dowty's Mono-Red
Standard – Winner, Open in St. Louis, MO

The Open event was won by Dennis Dowty and his Mono-Red deck.

Volt Charge | Art by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss

This deck is substantially similar to David Caplan's Volt Charge deck from the Top 8 of the 2011 World Championships... but with a couple of copies of Rootbound Crag to support the flashback on a couple of copies of Ancient Grudge.

The incremental cost on a Rootbound Crag is pretty low, long run—they more or less hit the battlefield untapped after the first turn or so—and the back end of an Ancient Grudge can be backbreaking, especially in a world where, quite recently, the most dominant team on the Pro Tour fielded a deck of all artifact threats.

To recap how this deck works, Volt Charge has many friends.

Stromkirk Noble, Stormblood Berserker, Shrine of Burning Rage (and Koth of the Hammer, at least previously) all benefit from Volt Charge, which can proliferate up their respective counters. This isn't just a case of more damage or accelerated Shrine of Burning Rage inevitability. You can also pull off some dirty tricks. For instance, your opponent has plans to get in a good block, but you not only get rid of one of the blockers (or send 3 to the face, or whatever), but also make your Noble / Berserker / whoever bigger, to screw up the math.

Volt Charge played this way will often be a blowout from a card advantage sense.

Of course first-turn Stromkirk Noble into second-turn Stormblood Berserker will be attacking for 7 or so (and maybe 10, if the burn spell in question was aimed at the opponent's face) set up by a third-turn Volt Charge... well... That spells "blowout" as well.

Marcus Handy's White-Blue Humans
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

Ryan Waller's White-Blue Humans
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

The St. Louis Open Series Top 8 included two White-Blue Haunted Humans decks. These were pretty similar to the deck Craig Wescoe played at Worlds (and each other), the main departure from earlier editions being no Champion of the Parish... which is kind of interesting, if you think about it. Most of the creatures in the White-Blue Humans decks are Humans, making Champion of the Parish potentially colossal, especially from the first turn.

However, Handy opted for Angelic Destiny and a Sword for customizations, versus Waller's Gideon's Lawkeepers.

The most populous archetype of this tournament Top 8 was the popular White-Blue Illusions deck.

Pat McGregor's White-Blue Illusions
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

Mike Hawthorne's White-Blue Illusions
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

Alex Bertoncini's White-Blue Illusions
Standard – Top 8, Open in St. Louis, MO

Lord of the Unreal | Art by Jason Chan

The Illusions decks were all remarkably similar to one another in the main, all within say, a Glacial Fortress or a Gut Shot of one another. Their sideboards, however, were quite varied.

What makes the Illusions deck tick—or rather stick—is the presence of Moorland Haunt, innovated by Todd Anderson way back at the first Open Series event of Innistrad Standard. That land gives the deck lasting power against sweepers, an unending stream of blockers (if necessary), and helps curb the inherently fragile disadvantage of Illusion-type creatures with ironically more robust (if generally smaller) 1/1 flyers.

Interesting for this Top 8, and an interesting lead-in as we move towards the end of 2011, is the non-presence of format stalwarts Solar Flare and Green-Red Wolf Run. I guess that is a result of having such a varied and diverse metagame where you can play any sort of beatdown you want, apparently... be it white creatures, blue ones, little red ones, or red and blue ones together!

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