I have been doing this for several years, and this Feedback Week submission now stands as my all-time favorite Swimming With Sharks / Top Decks column of all time. It was so fun to write! I am so thankful for the participation of my readers over Twitter (and I'm sure you were thankful for the change of pace).
or Feedback Week I decided to solicit specific questions from Twitter (BTW, you can follow YT @fivewithflores ... no pressure!).
Following are my responses to most of the questions I got. Enjoy!
I don't think so.
Many players were pleasantly surprised to see Caw-Blade's rebooted viability despite losing what were supposed to be its two signature cards. Caw-Blade today doesn't seem to be blatantly overpowered (there is no free Batterskull sequence), but it remains a very good deck. Even if it is (still) the most popular deck, Caw-Blade is just one of many playable decks, and I think recent National Championship results have borne out that it doesn't necessarily win every time at bat.
For the benefit of players who haven't seen all of the Germany Nationals Top 8 decks, this is how that tournament's Day Three looked:
And this is the Nationals-winning deck list:
Helge Nelson's Red Deck Wins
Standard – Winner, Germany Nationals
I think to answer @thenetbrew's question specifically, I think the answer—if there is a single answer—is "specific cards" (though we can't ignore specific mechanics).
In terms of cards, I think Hero of Oxid Ridge is high on the list of awesome metagame additions. Hero of Oxid Ridge allows a Red Deck to go straight over the top of a Timely Reinforcements and ignore Squadron Hawk.
Chandra's Phoenix is simply relentless; not only does it fly over Timely Reinforcements, but it outclasses Squadron Hawk (at least an unenhanced Squadron Hawk) and serves as a source of card advantage.
Finally you have the team of Shrine of Burning Rage (RDW's probable best card) and Dismember (a super powerful and super flexible card that can be played by almost every deck). Shrine of Burning Rage is just going to kill an opponent who doesn't have a Spellskite on the battlefield... but sometimes you just use it to kill a Kor Firewalker. Between these two cards, the onetime "I win" two-drop becomes just "very good" instead of a second-turn game conclusion.
I think from the previous question we can see that especially with Hero of Oxid Ridge in the mix, red can compete against Timely Reinforcements; I would still think twice before going down this road, personally, but watching players like Patrick Chapin and Brian Kibler with their Heroes of Oxid Ridge in rogue decks (not even Mono-Red Beatdown decks) over the weekend at the TCGPlayer.com Championship... I was impressed, and I think the card can totally prove effective in Red Deck Wins against Timely Reinforcements.
In my opinion the best Magic 2012 planeswalker is Gideon Jura. Gideon will at the very least steal a turn from Exarch Twin, and it can completely lock down certain attack-oriented strategies... especially when combined with cards like Spellskite or Jace Beleren (or of course Timely Reinforcements and Celestial Colonnade).
Core set planeswalkers tend to float in and out of best-ness; for example, at the beginning of time, Garruk Wildspeaker was the most popular Standard planeswalker, but there was a fair bit when green-white and white-black attack decks were performing in Standard that Ajani Goldmane was tops (Ajani Goldmane + Kitchen Finks and Murderous Redcap was a pretty hard crew to beat). For example, I could see either the new Chandra (advantage on cost) or the new Garruk (general awesomeness and gross flexible card power) take the title.
Splinter Twin is at the very least the second most powerful thing that you can do!
I am not sure what would constitute "taking over" ... For example, a blue-red-green Birthing Pod deck with Splinter Twin won Australian Nationals:
Aaron Nicoll's Blue-Red-Green Twin Pod
Standard – Winner, Australia Nationals
Is "taking over" just rising into the position of "first among equals"? Because Splinter Twin has too many holes at this point to simply walk into Caw-Blade's super-dominant shoes.
1) The banning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor probably affected Splinter Twin decks more than any other deck. Previously, Splinter Twin could more-or-less ignore Spellskite because of the ability to bounce it off the table (and therefore set up your Splinter Twin combination un-Spellskite-molested) without using additional cards. You just can't do that now! You have to rely more on Into the Roil.
2) It's hard to see what, if anything, is the "right" sideboard plan for Splinter Twin. When I first played the deck, we had a very solid Plan B of just grinding the opponent out with Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and a decent Plan C of Inferno Titan lockdown. Right now it is unclear if the correct Plan B is Hedron Crab, Birthing Pod, or nothing at all.
3) Dismember exists. Dismember is played in almost every deck, and it is a superb tool against Deceiver Exarch.
My opinion is that there were always lots of different decks you could play in Standard, even pre-bannings. The difference is that more people are actually embracing more different decks now than they previously were (which is different from whether or not you could reasonably play some of those decks... you could). For example Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle has picked up hugely in terms of popularity since the bannings.
That said, I think that in terms of metagaming possibilities, there is such a thing as "too much of a good thing" ... It is one thing to have maybe five known, mainstream, and heavily played decks (pretty healthy) and having twenty-plus viable, known decks. In the latter case it becomes really hard for a player to prepare for so many different things, which makes for a restrictive decision-making process (i.e. you will probably want to play an active, rather than reactive deck).
If the goal was to "kill Caw-Blade" (as @wrongwaygoback seems to think), they were definitely not successful... Still lots of Caw-Blade appearing in Top 8s.
If the goal was to increase player attendance—and I do think the overall popularity and health of the game has to be top of mind for decision makers—then they have definitely been successful!
I don't think that Wizards "went overboard" at all... I think they have a certain idea, and are pushing that idea. It is pretty deliberate that they don't want to see "some deck everyone hates" win in Philadelphia (no Bitterblossom means no Faeries in the classic sense, no Golgari Grave-Troll means no Dredge in the classic sense)... and from that perspective, it is pretty hard to imagine Bitterblossom ruining PT Philadelphia if you can't play it.
I think Modern looks like it will be a pretty quick, active, format; we are almost certain to see a variety of different, good, decks (which I think was the idea behind the bannings).
As for why they didn't ban Darksteel Citadel... I think banning the other five classic artifact lands is probably enough to keep Myr Enforcers from taking over, but with Darksteel Citadel in the mix, you can still see things like Trinket Mage performing in a Civic Wayfinder-like fashion without enabling something more abusive (good, useful enough... but certainly not "too good"). For that reason I think it might have been cute for R&D to ban Darksteel Citadel but leave Tree of Tales (I mean who has Tree of Tales ever hurt?).
Now Æther Vial is another question entirely...
The next question comes from Pro Tour Player of the Year frontrunner Owen Turtenwald:
I am glad you asked, Owen!
I played this deck at this past weekend's TCGPlayer.com Championship:
Mike Flores's Green-Blue Infect
Standard – TCGPlayer.com Championship
This is the fastest deck in Standard. If you play a first-turn Glistener Elf, there are several ways to win on the second turn. For example, you can play a first-turn Glistener Elf, and then follow up on the second turn with, say, another Forest, two Groundswells, and a Mutagenic Growth, and kill the opponent on the spot... especially if said opponent does something silly like playing a Celestial Colonnade or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle on turn one.
I will write more on this topic another time, but suffice it to say, I think we will see more decks like this played at high levels. Phyrexian mana in terms of cards like Mutagenic Growth and Gitaxian Probe is just really powerful for what you are paying for them; these tools allow you to completely overwhelm players who are running at a more basic level of mana consumption and speed in terms of traditional damage sources.
Though it is a combo deck, Green-Blue Infect allows you to leverage seldom-used skills in Standard, and rewards things like patience and combat math, even if you don't have the kind of control over your draws that a Caw-Blade—full of Preordains and Squadron Hawks—will give you.
I finished 9-3, in a twenty-plus player tie for Top 32, though I finished outside of the money; so it was a respectable outing for the deck, even if the deck itself isn't something the average player will default-respect.
(@OreoCorp actually asked several different questions, but I liked this one about Pro Tour Philadelphia best).
I don't know what the "best" approach is because we don't know what the best deck will be; doubtless the best deck will be a product of either templated porting of an existing deck or a product of a new format where cards that were never played together before have that chance (I know, I know); however, I can tell you how I would approach it:
I would start with "known" decks (most of them Æther Vial–based small creature decks) as at least some baseline decks, or gauntlet decks.
Simultaneously I would go over all the legal sets and pick out the ten or so best cards in every set and start looking for crossover opportunities, or even weird "angle shot" type cards that can exploit certain inefficiencies or projected matchups.
These lists would include cards like:
I would tend towards fast and efficient cards for this Pro Tour, but that first sense is by no means conclusive. I predict some good brewing is going to produce the best deck for Philadelphia. Who could have easily predicted Treefolk Harbinger would be a standout card of the Extended Pro Tour Amsterdam?
Well... No one really asked me to before. :)
There are my snap-selections, by deck by format:
- Block: Critical Mass
- Standard: Caw-Blade
- Extended: Trix
- Legacy: Flash Hulk
- Vintage: no clue... Probably Slash Panther.dec
For those of you who haven't been following this story, Patrick Chapin polled some of the game's best deck designers to vote on who they thought are / were the best deck designers of all time, with the caveat that we could not vote for either ourselves or Patrick.
Patrick's results ended up:
- Zvi Mowshowitz
- Gabriel Nassif
- Tsuyoshi Fujita
- Erik Lauer
- Tomoharu Saito
- Brian Kibler
- Alan Comer
- Rob Dougherty
- Michael Flores
- Mark Herberholz (tie)
Doubtless Patrick himself would have been in the Top 10, pushing out YT or Heezy in the process.
To answer @rtassicker's question, this is who I voted for (in no particular order):
- Brian Schneider
- Erik Lauer
- Brian Kibler
- Ben Rubin
- Alan Comer
- Gabriel Nassif
- Tsuyoshi Fujita
- Zvi Mowshowitz
- Mark Herberholz
- Osyp Lebedowicz
Obviously it is impossible for any qualifying designer to actually submit a "perfect" ballot due to the inability to vote for oneself.
I think the exclusion of Brian Schneider is the biggest miss by the voting committee. Schneider was an awesome deck designer of the 1990s who left the player pool to join R&D, eventually rising to the title of head developer. Zvi Mowshowitz said of bschneid, "He never ceased to be the best deck designer in the world... he just broke all the cards before we saw them." I think that his eventual fourteenth-place finish is just a product of some of the more recent players not knowing about bschneid's contributions in the earlier years of the Pro Tour (sound familiar?).
Likewise I don't know how you have Brian Kibler on the list without his opposite number, Ben Rubin. I respect Osyp and Heezy about the same amount as deck designers, so I didn't want to have one without the other.
Biggest miss on my ballot was probably Rob Dougherty (but at least Rob made it).
I don't think there is an objective yes/no answer to this one. For example, it is pretty obvious that Lightning Helix is a better card than Frogmite. However Brian Kibler only played two Lightning Helixes in his Pro Tour Austin–winning Rubin Zoo deck... But you basically never saw an Affinity deck without four Frogmites (a clear example of synergy forcing a four-of).
I think it depends on a deck-by-deck basis, influenced by all available cards, and more importantly, what cards are played by other players. I typically err on the side of card power in the post-planeswalker era (Naya Lightsaber, for instance, was just all the best cards in red, green, and white), but last weekend I elected to run Blighted Agent and Ichorclaw Myr in my actual deck. Neither one is a particularly good card in the abstract, and you won't see either in any kind of serious Constructed deck except for a dedicated combo-Infect deck. Part of the reason I chose that strategy is that people started playing Primeval Titans again. Primeval Titan (clearly a much better card than Blighted Agent) can almost never beat Blighted Agent heads up; the resurgent popularity of that "better" card helped pave the way for the "weaker" synergy-driven ones.
I don't know if this is going to answer the second part of the question exactly as @exknowswhy wanted, but I would predict Æther Vial and Stomping Ground!
I use DailyMTG.com and the Magic Online site to get a broad view of the metagame, in order to try to figure out if there is a gap I can exploit. However, the most useful overall site for deck design is probably Gatherer, because that is the site that tells me what cards do, and helps me figure out which cards are powerful.
Beyond that, I look to deck designers I respect for inspiration and feedback, and those players write for a variety of different sites. Patrick Chapin, Michael Jacob, Brian Kibler, and Gerry Thompson write for Star City Games; Conley Woods writes for TCGPlayer.com and Channel Fireball.com. The writer I most want to "steal from" is Conley Woods.
I am pretty access-point-agnostic. I browse about 50% from my iPad, and I have written, if not finished articles, large chunks of them on everything from my iPad to my old Palm Pre. I will jot deck list ideas on anything from Starbucks napkins to Windows-based text editors.
At this point in my life, I do basically all my testing and brewing on Magic Online.
Phyrexian Obliterator is a pretty unambiguously powerful creature. People keep trying to play it because there are lots of situations where they can imagine that it should be awesome.
Now whether or not Phyrexian Obliterator will ever actually be good is another question. I think there are three broad issues in Standard: 1) There is a 6/6 flyer for a less restrictive four mana in black, 2) for a deck that can produce , Lashwrithe will generally be long-run bigger and "do more" for you offensively (and you can only play so many four-mana bomb threats), and 3) Dismember.
Of these, the most restrictive is not Phyrexian Obliterator's cost, but the existence of Dismember. It is pretty oppressive of Phyrexian Obliterator for the black mage to have to tap as a sorcery to summon this theoretically awesome 5/5, and have a White Weenie deck kill it for one mana and go about attacking with multiple 3/3 creatures for zero mana.
What would make Phyrexian Obliterator consistently good in Standard? I think the question is more complex than lowering its casting cost. If it only cost , Phyrexian Obliterator would quickly become the best card in the format. At it would see serious consideration and potentially warp what players are willing to do in large numbers.
The problem isn't that it costs too much (it is actually probably undercosted at four mana), but that the archetype is can be played in does not compare favorably with what is out there. Abyssal Persecutor can be played in Blue-Black Control at the same converted mana cost; Phyrexian Obliterator can pretty much only be played in a mono-black creature deck. Moreover, creatures in Standard are primarily controlled via Into the Roil, Dismember, and so forth. Phyrexian Obliterator's ability is much less relevant than it could theoretically be, and that has nothing to do with the text on the card itself.
1. I think Modern is awesome / interesting.
2. No clue (yet), but my first thoughts are all around small creature decks and / or Æther Vial decks to start.
3. I think Grove of the Burnwillows + Punishing Fire will be good, but not as good against Zoo as it was when Kibler won PT Austin. Everyone knows that the combo exists, so I would guess Zoo will play all Wild Nacatls, Loam Lions, Kird Apes, etc... 3-toughness creatures.
I also liked Ravnica block + Time Spiral block, though I think I may have liked Kamigawa block + Ravnica block more. Other favorites include Tempest block + Urza block, and Urza block + Masques block. However, I think my all-time favorite was Zendikar block + the full Scars of Mirrodin block (with Jace, the Mind Sculptor).
I generally like formats with a lot of play, where even if there are really good, really obviously good, cards, you can play them in lots of different ways. Keiga, the Tide Star; Giant Solifuge; Tarmogoyf; Lotus Cobra; and Spellskite are all superb cards, and can all be played in lots and lots of different decks. I like those better than formats where the best cards (e.g. Mistbind Clique or Arcbound Ravager) can only be played in one linear deck.
I don't think Squadron Hawk is Top 10. It has seen relatively little play in wider formats, whereas old buddy Stoneforge Mystic has had no such restrictions on its playability and pedigree. Perhaps Top 20?
It is hard to say without knowing anything about Innistrad, but my gut says Infect will be taken more seriously. On a single-card basis, I would pick Gitaxian Probe for two reasons: 1) it's already played in Infect, and 2) it can help fill the gap of a departing Preordain.
I hope you enjoyed this week's change of pace! I was happy to get an actual National Champion / new Top Deck in there! Next week—back to our usual format.