his week I was just going to write about Tomoharu Saito and his Grand Prix-winning version of Naya aggro, but I got a lot of late-in-the-game input and had to branch out into more and more innovative decks and ideas .... I hope you don't mind. This week we have a triumphant champion, a deck I openly wish I made myself, a deck I secretly wish I made, and as a shiny visit from the Great Glass-Spinner. Let's go!
Tomoharu Saito's Naya Zoo
Extended, Grand Prix-Singapore Top 8
This deck represents a fair departure not just from the more familiar Zoo / Domain Zoo decks that we have seen and discussed for some months, but also from the more recent Naya Burn decks popularized by Adam Prosak via Luis Scott-Vargas and others.
While it may be Naya colors and look like a Zoo deck, I don't think that that is how Saito's deck really plays out. The Zoo decks of recent years have been all about playing the strongest possible cards regardless of colors and / or pushing the boundaries of the available domain cards such as Tribal Flames or Might of Alara (especially when combined with double striking creatures such as Boros Swiftblade or Viashino Slaughtermaster).
Separately, the so-called Naya Burn decks are really improved three-color takes on the Lightning Bolt Deck. They usually play the Keldon Marauders but replace the quick-but-expendable Spark Elemental with a recurring source of 3 damage for one mana in Wild Nacatl. But even though they find room for one of the best offensive two-drops in history (and I speak naturally of Tarmogoyf), Naya Burn still preserves the spirit of the Lightning Bolt Deck with Sulfuric Vortex and lots of burn spells.
Saito's deck, though, isn't really that deck. Limiting to three colors, he doesn't really push the envelope with every Dark Confidant, and he also doesn't keep the spirit of the burn deck close to his heart... Saito's spell selection includes not only main-deck Umezawa's Jitte, but Path to Exile (an efficient removal spell, sure ... but one that does no damage). His creatures are ... interesting. Gaddock Teeg over Keldon Marauders is possible thanks to Saito's modified mana base (more on that in a minute); less aggressive, but quite saucy in the face of a Mind's Desire or even a more egalitarian Cryptic Command. The singleton Isamaru, Hound of Konda as a first-turn redundancy over Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl is quite cute, and in fact, made possible by that aforementioned change in the mana base. Looking at this deck my friend Brian David-Marshall joked that Saito probably played the Hound first turn off the one Plains—at least once—and had his hapless foe convinced if for a moment he was up against White Weenie.
Wooly Thoctar takes the place of Sulfuric Vortex at the three, rounding out a general philosophy of decidedly not extreme deck design. Saito's deck is about playing good creatures and flexible spells. While it appears simple, it is my opinion that this is a deck for a master, not a neophyte.
Although not as punishing as Domain Zoo in the early turns, the mana base of Saito's Naya is one that will consistently present challenges with regards to mulligan decisions or which path to follow on a Windswept Heath, Bloodstained Mire, or Wooded Foothills. There is enough burn to give Saito a "hot hand" victory a couple of times per tournament, but not nearly enough to lean back on "stupid burn" wins enjoyed by the Lightning Bolt Deck and to a lesser extent Naya Burn. Instead, this deck allows a strong player to hose some opponents with Gaddock Teeg, pressure most with efficient threats (3/3 on turn one, */*+1 on turn two, 5/4 on turn three) with enough spell support to get those threats through—whether that support is in the form of just getting a blocker out of the way or closing the final 3-6 points outside the red zone.
So why this kind of a deck over Zoo? It is certainly lower on the power curve (no Dark Confidant) and potential explosiveness (no dramatic Might of Alara for 14 on turn three). The answer is in the mana base. Zoo's mana base is quite un-fun to execute upon sometimes, whereas Saito's deck can actually not take extensive damage sometimes (whereas Zoo so often starts on 14). The ample basic lands in this deck make it relatively friendly with Path to Exile, a concern for most people in the room at this point.
I was a bit surprised at the utter lack of Affinity hate in Saito's sideboard (one Ancient Grudge only), but I quite like some of his choices anyway. Of particular interest is Volcanic Fallout (a.k.a. Volcanic Blowout), a "get out of jail free" card of sorts, at least against some fluttering foes. Look for this card to displace other Fae-fighting options in decks that have a fair number of 3-toughness creatures (and this deck has many, even on one mana).
Saito's deck was different while remaining familiar. Here is a deck – and a strategy – in the same vein, a Top 8 "Ranger Zoo" build from Bill Stark:
Bill Stark's Ranger Zoo
Extended - Top 8, PTQ-Honolulu, Seattle WA
Adding Ranger of Eos to Extended Zoo (or Naya) is an idea that has been burning in the back of my mind since seeing the Ranger gather Wild Nacatls ... in Legacy. As you can see, Bill's deck is similar to a sideboarded version of Saito's, but with a dedicated Ranger configuration instead of main deck Path to Exile.
So how does this deck work?
Painted with a broad brush, Bill's deck is a lot like Saito's, a flexible offensive creature deck with burn support rather than a burn deck that treats its creatures like more efficient burn cards (a la Naya Burn). Like Saito's deck, Bill's has some Jittes and some burn, but those are there for support. Stark has got the Wooly Thoctars, and of course, it goes even further up the mana curve with the four-cost Ranger of Eos.
Ranger of Eos is a good creature even when all it is doing is getting a couple of Kird Apes to reload after an opposing Wrath of God. But in this case, it is also a precision tool. Bill has the singleton Burrenton Forge-Tender to foil red spells, and a singleton Figure of Destiny (which can grow up to be a 4/4 or even larger threat). When you need a "burn spell" it can even fetch Mogg Fanatic (as it often does in Standard).
All in all, and quite simply, a deck I admire.
But is the next one?
Earlier this week, I received a Tweet at http://www.twitter.com/fivewithflores from Blair Simpson about his making Top 8 with an innovative take on Bant Aggro-Control. He declared that I would love his new-old technology. What do you think?
Blair Simpson's Bant Aggro-Control
The swap Blair made was to abandon the equipment hallmark of the Bant strategy in favor of Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. Kira is a brand new rediscovered interactive offensive weapon, and a special one given some of the traditional vulnerabilities of the strategy.
Kira plus Ethersworn Canonist is a lock against the Storm combination decks, and pretty rough for Elves. More interesting, though, is what Kira will do to a single Vedalken Shackles. Basically, Kira turns that particular annoyance completely off.
Kira is fundamentally powerful given the right basic set of parameters; that is, the Great Glass-Spinner helps out everyone on your team so long as someone is somehow out to get them .... She is going to be turning off Shackles and generating card advantage even when the opponent is playing optimally. But because she is seldom seen, opponents will be surprisingly prone to making errors while she is in play. All those little mistakes that people make when playing on autopilot will occur more and more often. I can already imagine myself trying to "finish off" damaged creatures with burn spells that are about to be countered, maybe tossing Jitte counters into the primordial muck. You can probably imagine yourself doing the same, hopefully chuckling. If we are both very honest, we probably know that we would do it, and do it again, in the same game. Again even.
Kira is cool but playing with her does come with a price. Blair's deck is never going to win a Jitte fight, because Kira and Equipment don't get along. Similarly, there is no Sword of Fire and Ice free win against Fae. Perhaps worst of all, the deck is a little slower on the offense when playing against control for the same reasons. Put simply, his creatures are good ... but that's about as good as they are going to get.
However the counterbalance of playing with a card that can generate so much advantage given the right opponents just might be worth cashing in the Jittes. Certainly something worth looking at if you are interested in the Bant, as many strong players have been in recent weeks.
Finally, the coolest, newest cool deck to win a Honolulu PTQ:
Jonathan Loucks's Kiki-Jiki Combo-Control
Extended — Winner, PTQ-Honolulu, Seattle WA
Jonathan Loucks, one of the designers behind last year's popular Makeshift Mannequin deck, was the actual winner of the Seattle PTQ where Bill Stark made Top 8. In a star-studded Top 8, Jonathan defeated former Magic Academy writer and Grand Prix Champion Jeff "ffej" Cunningham in the finals.
So how does this cool new deck work?
In essence it is a hybrid combo-control deck. The "obvious" combination is Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Pestermite. Kiki-Jiki copies a Pestermite, a Pestermite token comes into play, untapping Kiki-Jiki. Rinse and repeat to set up essentially infinite damage (you can just keep untapping Kiki-Jiki with incremental Pestermite tokens so you are not limited to 20 damage as you are with some combo decks).
The hybrid wings work like this: Notice the power on Kiki-Jiki and Pestermite? That's right. They are just powerful enough to hang with Reveillark. Reveillark (and the numerous strategic singletons) also work well with Gifts Ungiven. Now imagine we live in a dream world where the opponent would do what I am about to describe (for illustration's sake).
You play Gifts Ungiven and find Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Reveillark, Pestermite, and Body Double. The opponent buries the combo pieces, leaving you with Reveillark and Body Double. You can untap, play your fifth land and the Chrome Mox, evoke Reveillark, and go ahead and kill with your combo.
On top of all of this, Jonathan's deck is also a Trinket Mage deck, and a pretty good one; Spellbombs, Explosives, Chalice of the Void, and so on are easily available. The Trinket Mage can even go Civic Wayfinder, grabbing Great Furnace for red mana, or Ancient Den for white (remember: if you are using Trinket Mage to fix your mana, you probably already have a blue source).
So why play this kind of a deck over some of the faster, harder-to-counter combo decks such as Elves or Storm? The reason is pretty simple .... This is a two-card kill that you can actually cast. Imagine just running out a Pestermite on the opponent's turn, then untapping, playing Kiki-Jiki, and winning on the spot. While a bit little slower than Elves, and a little more open to interaction than Storm, the sheer ease of this combo makes it attractive in a deck that can also play a "regular" game of progressive card advantage.
My inclination was—at least originally—to make this a faster, more consistent, combo deck. I was going to cut the Kitchen Finks, but ....
Kitchen Finks, while seemingly out of place in this build, offers an important backup plan. Unlike many combo decks, this one can actually present problems—and ride card advantage—even when its most flamboyant way to win has been cut off. In the finals, Cunningham's modified Bant deck played Cranial Extracion taking Kiki-Jiki out of the equation. Jonathan was able to regroup and win with Kitchen Finks beatdown (after landing Pithing Needle on Umezawa's Jitte of course); it was just Finks, Trinket Mages, and Reveillarks in the red zone, winning essentially a fair fight—but one where Loucks had all the routes to card advantage.
All in all, I feel like Jonathan's is one of the most inventiveand surprizingly flexible – PTQ winners to have come out this season. It is a rare deck that both has a potential turn-four kill and can play essentially The Rock-style Magic well enough to win an ordinary long game against decks that either don't demand a fast combo or are sitting on a Mogg Fanatic.