don't know if you've noticed this...
but if you're a regular reader of this column and stuff...
there's this card...
you might have noticed (not to be presumptuous or anything)...
there's this card that is pretty good in, you know, formats—Standard... Modern... (probably Extended)... and absolutely, positively Legacy—that we talk about... pretty much every time.
You might have noticed that we rave about Delver of Secrets, well, more or less constantly on this column. I have called it the best card in Standard, and probably more than once. It's kind of unavoidable, seeing as it wins as a Legacy Burn deck (Blue-Red Delver), mid-range companion to Tarmogoyf (RUG Delver), various tempo and aggro-control Modern decks (say with, with-with, and without Isochron Scepter and even Bloodchief Ascension), and at least four distinct decks across at least three color combinations in Standard. We have classic White-Blue Delver with Invisible Stalker and Runechanter's Pike, a heftier White-Blue Delver with Swords and now Restoration Angels, Esper Spirits where Delver of Secrets is joined by cards like Lingering Souls (sometimes with Drogskol Captain and other times Intangible Virtue), and most recently Blue-Red Delver with Bonfire of the Damned—fifteen one-ofs in the side and circa three Sulfur Falls.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite | Art by Igor Kieryluk
Delver of Secrets is the kind of card that is hard to hate, though, regardless of how annoyingly effective it can be. Some grumps a year ago might have complained about Stoneforge Mystic being rare, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor being mythic rare, but what are you really going to say about today's masters? Are Delver of Secrets, Vapor Snag, and Ponder really so hard to come by?
Blah BLAH BLAH.
We're starting on card previews soon so I said to myself, "Self, why don't we take a break from Delver of Secrets, for at least a week? Why not check out somebody else's toys?"
So that's what we're going to do today.
Interesting similarities between these two events. Half of each were composed of White-Blue Delver decks that we aren't going to discuss at all, but both events were won by Solar Flare. Solar Flare! Let's check out this recently super-successful alternative to He Who Shall Not Be Named.
Michael Belfatto won the Columbus Star City event...
Michael Belfatto's Solar Flare
Standard – Winner, StarCityGames.com Open Series, Columbus, Ohio
... and Zack Mullin won the Edison TCGPlayer.com event:
Zack Mullin's Solar Flare
Standard – Winner, TCGPlayer.com MaxPoint Series Diamond Event
The strategies of these two decks, despite their particular individual decisions, are substantially similar.
Both Solar Flare decks are white-blue-black board control decks that top up Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.
Belfatto played a light counterspell suite of two Mana Leaks, one Negate, and a solo Dissipate. Mullin played permission (three Negates) only in his sideboard.
... but their core strategies both involved a little Unburial Rites action to set up fat men like Sun Titan and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Both decks used Forbidden Alchemy to set up the thin-but-mighty Unburial Rites and the four-of flashback (and A+ defensive spell) Lingering Souls.
What is important to note is how these decks can defend themselves early, in particular from aggressive and high-quality drops. Both Michael and Zack played Go for the Throat, Oblivion Ring, and Ratchet Bomb in various numbers. Fast removal spells are vital to a deck like Solar Flare, as they allow the deck to survive long enough against beatdown to get to the late-game lockdown position.
Now, speaking of which, these decks are built with powerful synergies, in particular exploiting Sun Titan. Michael supplemented his removal with a solo Dead Weight. Dead Weight is of course essentially the modern era's answer to Disfigure... and a Disfigure that can come back, turn after turn, via Sun Titan to kill one small creature per turn. Many of the cards in the Solar Flare archetype have the same incentives... Zack played main-deck Nihil Spellbomb, and both had access to Evolving Wilds.
But of course the most common and desirable pairing to Sun Titan is Phantasmal Image; that creature—costing two only in the graveyard—makes for a perfect Sun Titan pairing, and often ends up being a Sun Titan itself for additional re-buys.
Looking for a non-Delver alternative for Friday Night Magic?
You could do worse than this recent two-tournament dominating control archetype.
Red-Green Aggro Abbas Tapal's Red-Green Aggro
Standard – Top 8, TCGPlayer.com MaxPoint Series Diamond Event
Abbas Tapal put a new coat of paint on a (for this Standard format) favorite deck.
At first blush, this is a red-green Jackie Lee-style aggro deck... four Strangleroot Geists and four Green Sun's Zeniths to get more Strangleroot Geists. Hellrider is a two-of to supplement Huntmaster of the Fells on four, and a solo Acidic Slime tag-teams with Green Sun's Zenith as the utility bullet.
That said, Avacyn Restored has brought considerable bounty to the red-green squad, and we see Wolfir Silverheart sharing the five with Acidic Slime; although they cost the same amount of mana, these two threats obviously do very different things. One takes out a stray land, manascrews an unlucky opponent ("How did you get to five before I drew a third land?"), or strategically takes out key permanents before the opponent gains too much control; the other is a huge and persistent Giant Growth—Monstrous Growth, really—and a pair of them.
I had to read Evan Wagstaff's decklist, closely, closer still, and over again before I wrote this. Check. There really are no Birthing Pods.
I mean, look at it:
Evan Wagstaff's Naya Aggro
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open Series, Columbus, Ohio
It looks a lot like a Birthing Pod build! One Strangleroot Geist as a chain-up, one Acidic Slime, one Zealous Conscripts, and so on. But it is more a Red-Green Aggro deck adding white than a Pod deck sans Pods.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben | Art by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss
Evan could get a quick aggro start with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Thalia, of course, puts a hefty 100% tax on players digging for lands with Ponder or Gitaxian Probe (lands, we should make mention, that they need to operate while Thalia is directing the battlefield); otherwise game-breaking cards like Vapor Snag start looking much more fair. Against a control opponent, Thalia undoes the play when it comes to dropping Liliana of the Veil and is equally annoying on the Think Twice front... a 2-power drop on turn two, Thalia makes for quite a great start to a long line of effective offensive creatures.
Of course, Wagstaff utilized many of the now-favorites for green-based creature decks—Huntmaster of the Fells, off-color Phyrexian Metamorphs, and Kessig Wolf Run—even exclusive of Primeval Titans.
What is more interesting (for an emerging archetype) is how he integrated new cards to the mix:
Bonfire of the Damned: As fellow Naya enthusiast Joshua Cho said in his Pro Tour Avacyn Restored Top 8 interview, you can't miracle it to ruin your opponent if you don't have it in your deck. Wagstaff had this bomb in his sideboard, given the less mono-creatures outlook of Standard rather than Block.
Borderland Ranger: Primo fixer for a three-color creature deck and source of self-contained card advantage. Borderland Ranger fills up the three nicely and can hit on two with the help of a first-turn Avacyn's Pilgrim.
Restoration Angel: Table-snapping trick, savior of about-to-perish little heroes, and snap four-of at the four for creature decks. Restoration Angel isn't just regular-great, but an absurd combo with men like Huntmaster of the Fells or the aforementioned Borderland Ranger.
Wolfir Silverheart: Everything we've said about this card, but again and again.
Zombies 1—Blue-Black Zombies
Michael Marlow scored an impressive finish with an archetype we have seen more than once in the tops of Standard events, Blue-Black Zombies:
Michael Marlow's Blue-Black Zombies
Standard – Top 8, StarCityGames.com Open Series, Columbus, Ohio
The major arcana of Blue-Black Zombies remains unchanged... Geralf's Messenger is the ace, and many of the most impressive sequences include utilizing Mortarpod with Geralf's Messenger to burn the opponent out, or the blue-splashed Phantasmal Image to double up the Messengers... (or both). Geralf's Messenger is a great mondo-combo with Phantasmal Image because undying undoes the core vulnerability of the Image (dies to anything), and not only gives you the option of a larger re-bought (and burning) body, but the opportunity to switch it up if you wish. Like... 3/2 on the way down, why not a 7/7 Explosive Vegetation on the way back up?
Like many of our successful finishers, Michael utilized Avacyn Restored's expanded toolset to make even more impressive the already-viable Zombies strategy.
Central to these is two-drop Blood Artist. Blood Artist obviously has a natural synergy with morbid- and undying-enablers like Mortarpod, but in this deck it can make for a two-card Day of Judgment + Fireball mondo-combo via Killing Wave.
The most controversial—probably best—card to come out of Avacyn Restored does some obviously good work in this list. One of the limitations of earlier Blue-Black Zombies lists was Island. As in, "we have to play some." These days, between Darkslick Shores, Drowned Catacomb, and now Cavern of Souls, the deck has a mana base friendly enough to drop Phantasmal Image consistently... without compromising on the ability to hit Geralf's Messenger.
Ponder, sure... but not an Island in sight!
Zombies 2—Zombie Pod
When I decided I wanted to write an article about interesting and competitive non-Delver decks, deep inside, what I really wanted to talk about was this, from Pro Tour Top 4 competitor and Grand Prix champion Gerard Fabiano:
Gerard Fabiano's Zombie Pod
Standard – Top 8, TCGPlayer.com MaxPoint Series Diamond Event
It's a Zombie deck. It can curve out and do aggressive Zombie-ish things.
It has some castable red cards.
Let's forget about that for a moment and focus on the Birthing Pods.
Gravecrawler | Art by Steven Belledin
Let's imagine for a moment we have Birthing Pod in play and just examine the synergies. (Because the non-Pod games can easily play like a "regular" aggressive Zombies sort, although the one-of Falkenrath Aristocrat—especially with some of the Undying and Gravecrawler re-buys—can prove unusually and above-and-beyond brutal, given sufficient land.)
Gravecrawler: This one-drop gives you a potentially never-ending stream of re-buys and two-drops with Birthing Pod. The go-to two-drop will of course be...
Blood Artist: Blood Artist has a quite obvious synergy with Birthing Pod. Every time you sacrifice a creature you give the Blood Artist a little more, you know, paint. Lethal, lethal paint. You can chain down in this deck by naturally re-buying Gravecrawler, just to grab another Blood Artist. That will double up the efficacy of future Birthing Pod sacrifices. Or chain up, per normal, for a Birthing Pod deck.
At the three, you have the option to go for Manic Vandal or just do the obvious thing and get the Zombies ace of Geralf's Messenger.
Geralf's Messenger has quite an obvious synergy with Birthing Pod. Like Strangleroot Geist in the more traditionally colored builds, it is the body that gives and gives again.
How about a Phyrexian Metamorph? Three-to-four... back to three again? You can murder your Geralf's Messenger (triggering its undying) and then go and get a Metamorph to copy your pseudo-fresh (but nevertheless rotting Geralf's Messenger). All the while, of course, you should be exploiting Blood Artist. You are that kind of awful human being (consorting, as you do, with the undead).
Or, the aforementioned Falkenrath Aristocrat! She has haste, of course! So you can be going above and beyond—literally above in this case—at which point you can sacrifice your squad to her to make her bigger and bigger, probably triggering undying and Blood Artist along the way. You might just kill the opponent with this. Very Arcbound Ravager + Disciple of the Vault, if you recall.
Zealous Conscripts: The solo five... it's not like you have to cast it yourself, or anything.
The mondo-combo of Birthing Pod and heavy black makes for some cruel companions. Every land in the deck can play Geralf's Messenger, but Gerard ran Woodland Cemetery to ease up on the Birthing Pod operating pain. Especially when you don't actually have to cast the damn thing, Phyrexian Obliterator is an easy chain-up from Geralf's Messenger (or, I suppose Manic Vandal), though of course you can to quite easily given Gerard's mana base. But on the plus side, you never have your 5/5 for four brick in the Game 1s where a Delver opponent might Vapor Snag you.
You had better be!
...because this is the last "decks" Top Decks for a while.
No! Don't worry! I'm not going anywhere, but we have previews coming up starting next week, so you have those to look forward to. And given this is Top Decks—i.e., the home of every flagship preview from Heartbeat of Spring to Lightning Helix to Cryptic Command to today's darling Geralf's Messenger—you know you want to tune in.
Good luck this weekend, whether you play Delver... or somebody else's toys.