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The Gauntlet (of POWER): Testing for Kyoto

Writing an article before an event is always interesting, as I run the risk of being completely wrong about my predictions. For better or for worse, I am certainly willing to be proven wrong. In this case, I will be speculating about which decks we are likely to play with and against at Pro Tour Kyoto. Mind you, there is surely a chance we may run completely different decks. Not a big chance, since I hate calling audibles, but a chance nonetheless. That being said, let me introduce you to our gauntlet (of playtesters and decks!).

The Wizards (Playtesters)

GerryT (Gerry Thompson) – The Facebook legend who is GerryT didn’t make it out to Northern California for any live testing, but he did his share in Missouri, and we talked through every step of the process.

David Ochoa – The one and only Webster (besides the dictionary that is) went above and beyond, even getting some two-fisted testing in when Josh and I weren’t available. Now that is dedication, and one of the many reasons they call him the Ocho.

Josh Utter-Leyton – Josh created some nifty statistical spreadsheets to track our playtesting results, which I’m sure he will talk about in his future articles. The man often known as “wrapter” did his best to fit Sygg, River Cutthroat into any deck that can cast him (which is more decks than one might think), as well as play a few games here and there. And by “a few” I of course mean “A TON.”

LSV – I don’t know how necessary it is to list myself, but here I am in all my three-letter glory.

The Decks

Five-Color Control

This is Pat Chapin’s list from Worlds, although we soon added some Conflux cards to the mix. The immediate change was to add two Volcanic Fallouts, although we ended up running three main and one sideboard. Banefire spent some time in the main, but ultimately was too situational, as it really only got good way late in the game. Exotic Orchard also replaced any stray pain lands, as the Orchard is a very good option for a land that doesn’t come into play tapped.

BR Blightning

This list saw many changes during our playtesting, but we quickly scrapped it due to a highly unfavorable matchup against the likely popular RW. Burrenton Forge-Tender and Ajani Vengeant were just too much, making us less inclined to worry too much about BR.

Faeries

And, yes, that’s me being picky about the art on the Faerie Conclaves. After Manuel B unveiled his own decklist with four Ponders and four Thoughtseizes, we made that as well. Bear in mind that most people who go to Pro Tours read all the same sites you do (about Magic that is, otherwise that can just sound bad). When a well-respected pro puts out a good list, testing against that list is usually a good idea. Some people who are too busy to test or don’t have a play group to test against will just end up running that sort of list, so preparing against it is worthwhile. It isn’t like switching to Manuel’s list completely changed any matchup, but seeing what the differences were was our plan.

RW Boat Brew

This was the original RW list, but it has some glaring errors. First of all, not playing Spectral Procession is flat-out wrong. Second, Mutavault is definitely a stretch in such a color-intensive deck. Between Figure and Spectral Procession you really want to avoid playing any colorless lands, not to mention the danger of the Rugged Prairie plus Mutavault draw. Once Tomoharu Saito’s list became public, we switched to that, and RW ran quite well. Saito, 2007 Player of the Year, made a very tuned list with a lot of good synergistic features, so that became our default RW list.

BW Tokens

BW Tokens seemed to have fallen out of favor, although I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. Maybe it was people assuming that Volcanic Fallout just destroys BW, when that isn’t exactly the case. BW has a fair number of two toughness guys (Knight of Meadowgrain, Tidehollow Sculler), so any Glorious Anthem-like effect puts them out of range. Add Burrenton Forge-Tenders after board and the problem is also minimized, so fear of Volcanic Fallout just didn’t makes sense to me. Plus, Five-color Control (5cc) and BR were really the only decks that could harness the Fallout, so it isn’t like we expected Fallout every round. In any case, despite getting no Conflux additions to the main, BW was one of the decks we figured would show up.

When I have sufficient time to really test, which unfortunately isn’t always the case, I like to begin by just getting a feel for all the decks I haven’t played before. For this particular gauntlet, the only decks I had no experience with were BR and WR, which makes perfect sense. I don’t exactly like to attack, so two of the more aggressive decks were obviously the decks I had never touched. Still, it didn’t take too many games before I got the hang of the decks, and soon thereafter we proceeded into our “actual” testing phase.

Time to Test

To kick things off, we ran 5cc against Faeries in a 10 game set, pre-sideboard. With two Volcanic Fallout, two Banefire and two Cloudthresher, 5cc managed a respectable 7-3 victory over the Faerie menace. That was encouraging for 5cc, since Faeries was presumably its worst matchup. We then decided to try cutting the Threshers and going up to four Fallout, since the Fallouts were incredible. Also, we figured that Fallout was better against RW and possibly about the same against BW. After playing with the new list for a while, we ended up being dissatisfied with 5cc in general. The deck was just too clunky, and the necessity of playing so many Vivid lands really felt like a lost opportunity. All the other decks in the format have lands that do awesome things, such as Windbrisk Heights or Mutavault, but 5cc has to play color-fixing lands instead. This leads to more mana flood, since you have a higher land count and none of your lands do anything particularly cool. Our final percentage for 5cc was a little under 50 percent, which is definitely not exciting for a deck we were considering playing.

I expected RW to be the most popular deck at the Pro Tour, and Saito’s win at the Lunatic Moon tournament certainly made that more likely. We quickly found that RW was a very consistent deck, even Saito’s 22-land list. Knight of the White Orchid and Mind Stone certainly carry their weight, and the long-term advantage of only playing 22 land is quite nice. Rarely getting flooded due to a low land count is sweet, as long as you draw enough lands to function.

Last among the decks I ended up considering was BW tokens. It took a while before we seriously considered it, but it turned out not that much had changed since Worlds. It is still a close match against Faeries, but BW does quite well against RW. You both have token making cards, but in this particular matchup Ajani Goldmane just blows Ajani Vengeant out of the water. If you have any sort of board presence, Ajani Goldmane wins you the game in short order—even if they end up playing their own Ajani. I get into this a little more below, but suffice to say that getting a use out of your planeswalker before they play theirs is really good for you.

Describing the results of each matchup would be tedious, so I will distill the raw information we obtained into some takeaways about Standard as I saw it before the Pro Tour.

1) The threats each deck is playing make it extremely difficult to win any game where you have fallen behind. A great example of this is the 5cc against RW ‘Lark matchup. If RW ‘Lark can resolve one of its bigger threats (Usually Siege-Gang or Reveillark, and Ajani Vengeant to some extent), than 5cc is put in a very awkward position. Reveillark in particular is almost impossible for 5cc to answer, since it leaves behind another wave of must-kill threats. What we found is that RW usually gets a creature(s) down, and 5cc is forced into this terrible position of trying to deal with it, only to get pummeled by the next threat. Even in a matchup such as the RW mirror, whoever can untap with their threat in play often just wins. Untapping makes Windbrisk, Siege-Gang, Figure of Destiny all destroy any opposing versions of those cards. Similarly, if 5cc can get to a board state where RW has no threats in play and 5cc has Cryptic Command mana, RW has a very difficult time getting ahead at all.

It might seem like this is a phenomenon that is always present in Magic, but it is very pronounced in this particular format for a number of reasons. The best board sweepers are conditional. Many of the new cards are resilient (here’s looking at Reveillark, although Ranger of Eos is pretty hard to deal with using removal spells as well), and dropping the first Planeswalker in the mirror makes an opposing Planeswalker a pretty bad deal. If you play an Ajani Vengeant and use it, they get much less value out of the Vengeant they use to kill yours. It all adds up to a format where being the aggressor is the place you want to be, since playing your powerful four or five drop first starts a cycle of plays that usually ends up with you winning.

2) Green decks are terrible. The only green cards in our gauntlet decks showed up in 5cc, and it was pretty much limited to Broodmate Dragon and Cloudthresher. Ever since Tarmogoyf rotated, green hasn’t had any card strong enough to drive a deck, and it shows. Blue has Cryptic Command, white has Spectral Procession and Windbrisk Heights and Figure of Destiny, black has Bitterblossom, and red has Figure of Destiny and Siege-Gang Commander. If you look at the cards I just listed and the decks of those colors, pretty much all the decks play all of the cards that fit in their colors. Five-color is an obvious exception, but all three of the black decks play Blossom; all the white decks have Procession/Windbrisk; and so on. I realize there are only five decks listed, but those are the significant decks in Standard. It is certainly possible that a Doran/Noble Hierarch type deck will emerge, and we did play a bit with such a deck, but the flagship cards of each other color seem to trump what green has to offer. Green always has this problem, since the supposed strength of “the best creatures” is often trumped by the good spells and the standout creatures that other colors get. All it took was Bitterblossom and Spectral Procession and there is now almost no reason to play some random three- or four-mana green dork if you want creatures.

3) Card advantage doesn’t determine very many games. This is somewhat of a corollary to the first point, but remarkably few games ended via attrition. All of the white decks beat the mirror by getting ahead on the board and pressing that advantage until they won. It was rare that either deck would lose because it ran out of things to do. Each side had so many things to do, between Figure of Destiny, activating Siege-Gang, Ranger of Eos, and Windbrisk Heights, that games ended far sooner than the flow of cards did. The main exception to this was when 5cc was one of the players, but that was also only when 5cc was going to win. Five-Color Control won by doing exactly what no other deck did, which was grind opposing decks out. Even Faeries, which is clearly on the more controlling end of the spectrum, had little interest in drawing a bunch of cards. Manuel B’s list is a pretty clear example of this, with Ponders and Thoughtseizes streamlining the deck into a sleek Bitterblossom machine.

Given that we had this information, what was our result? Although I can’t speak for all of us, since we ultimately each decided on a deck, I would say that more likely than not the four of us would play the same deck.

And that Deck Is…

At the point at which I write this, BW Tokens is the most likely choice, but there is still time for us to change our minds. I like BW because it seems to be a little underrated at the moment, and has access to many good cards for the matchups in which it needs help. Ajani Goldmane seems really insane in this format, and playing four in the list of 60 isn’t out of the question.

The Likely BW Tokens List

The sideboard is completely up in the air, but Burrenton Forge-Tender and some number of Mind Shatter and/or Scepter of Fugue seems likely to make an appearance. This list certainly has more four-ofs than I typically like to play, but I can’t seem to escape them lately. Maybe it is a sign that I am playing better decks, but most of the decks I have been choosing seem to be more consistent than what I normally prefer. I suppose I can’t complain about the results, but I will sure complain about playing a consistent deck.

There you have it: our conclusions on Standard up to the point where I left for Japan. Regardless of what happens, I am happy with how our testing went, although Standard is definitely not my favorite format (since Force of Will isn’t legal).

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