While sitting in the Denver airport waiting to make a connection home to Los Angeles, I finished reading Watership Down. This was significant insofar as I have been reading the book for about the last two years. As I’ve previously mentioned, the book has a mystical quality, instantly turning off my brain when I try to read it on an airplane. As such, it’s a godsend when I need to get a few hours of rest during the red eye flights I frequently utilize to travel to tournaments. However, reading 15-20 pages at a time and then putting the book down for a few weeks was becoming untenable. I liked the characters, as rabbits go, and wanted to know how things would end.

The putative protagonist is an adventurous and clever rabbit named Hazel, who leads a crew of castoffs and refugees to a place called Watership Down, where they set upon the task of building a new home. After overcoming a seemingly endless string of dangers and achieving success beyond what even the most optimistic among them could’ve expected, things begin to settle down a bit. But if you are a rabbit, there’s always more to be done, and in the case of Hazel and his friends, it becomes obvious that their buck-dominated band will soon need does if they are to propagate the species.

While one main plan seems to have promise and is set in motion, Hazel decides he will lead a separate mission to a place called Nuthanger Farm, where he hopes a daring raid can free a few domesticated does trapped within, while avoiding the menace of dogs, cats and other assorted dangers associated with humans. He did this rashly, in sharp contrast to his normally measured and reasoned approach, and without consulting with other seasoned rabbits who may have been able to talk him out of it. Without spoiling the tale, things go quite awry, and Hazel learns a valuable lesson.

I tell you this story because I’ve recently learned a lesson of my own. At Pro Tour Nagoya, I strayed far from my roots and the deck archetypes that have led to my recent success, playing a roguish Bant control deck. In limited testing with Matt Sperling, we figured out how good [card]Tempered Steel[/card] was, but elected to eschew playing White in favor of Wellspring-fueled midrange decks. Exactly why I did this is not easy for me to understand or figure out, much less explain. Part of the reasoning was a desire to avoid playing the deck everyone was gunning for, as well as the dreadful mirror match, which is largely decided by luck. But there was another part of me that wanted to prove to the world and myself that I could have success with Control. Despite the fact that my first Grand Prix Top Eight was with [card]Psychatog[/card] and I have had success at the Pro Tour level with many different decks, it’s true that my greatest highs have come playing aggressive white decks. So I decided to go a different direction for this tournament. Here is the deck I played in Nagoya:

[deck]4 Consecrated Sphinx
4 Viridian Emissary
1 Sunblast Angel
2 Karn Liberated
1 White Sun’s Zenith
1 Blue Sun’s Zenith
1 Steel Sabotage
2 Divine Offering
4 Ichor Wellspring
4 Mycosynth Wellspring
4 Beast Within
2 Stoic Rebuttal
2 Slice in Twain
2 Creeping Corrosion
1 Elspeth Tirel
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Razorverge Thicket
2 Phyrexia’s Core
4 Plains
5 Forest
6 Island
Sideboard:
1 Phyrexian Rebirth
1 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Marrow Shards
2 Steel Sabotage
1 Sunblast Angel
2 Stoic Rebuttal
1 Creeping Corrosion
2 Thrun, the Last Troll
1 Revoke Existence
1 Blue Sun’s Zenith[/deck]

Bant Control was actually not a terrible choice for this tournament, but my list was very untuned and I was very unpracticed.

Round 1 – Jay Lee (USA) – Koth/Red Midrange

In game one, Jay opened with [card]Sphere of the Suns[/card] into [card]Koth of the Hammer[/card] into [card]Volt Charge[/card], ultimateing Koth on turn 4 and crushing me. Game two, with a Thrun in play and 3 [card]Stoic Rebuttal[/card]s in hand and 5 lands out vs. just a Koth, I liked my chances. When he cast his last card in hand, a [card]Volt Charge[/card], during my turn, to both shrink Thrun (it had been blocked earlier by an [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]) and allow Koth to survive, I decided to tap low on Blue to stop it. This proved foolish as he drew [card]Kuldotha Phoenix[/card] next turn and won the race by one turn.

0-1

Round 2 – Vinnie Prabhu (USA) – Tempered Steel

I did feel, perhaps unfairly, that my deck had a favorable matchup against the white menace, and this match seemed to bear this out. In game one I had [card]Creeping Corrosion[/card] to stop his initial rush and [card]Corrupted Sphinx[/card] to mop up. In the second, [card]Marrow Shards[/card] took out 3 Inkmoths and it was academic from there.

1-1

Round 3 – Marijn Lybaert (Belgium) – Mono White Control

Marijn won the role and handled me easily in game one with turn 3 [card]Blade Splicer[/card] into turns 4 and 5 [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card]. Sideboarding for game two represented the turning point of the tournament for me. I assumed, since I hadn’t seen any other cards, that Marijn was playing some variation of the ChannelFireball [card]Tempered Steel[/card] deck. Instead, he was playing a Belgian White control deck. Game two I sat sullenly with [card]Marrow Shards[/card] and [card]Creeping Corrosion[/card]s in my hand while he ran rampant with Elspeth, Karn, Elesh Norn and other cards I couldn’t meaningfully interact with. Meanwhile, my 4 [card]Stoic Rebuttal[/card]s sat useless in my sideboard.

1-2

Round 4 – Carlos Nieto (Spain) – 4-Color Tezzeret

Carlos and I played two fairly uncompetitive games, in which his “artifacts and Steel Sabotage” deck wasn’t able to handle a steady stream of artifact removal and [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card].

2-2

Round 5 – Chifley Cole (Australia) – Tempered Steel

Chifley won the die role and crushed my mulligan in game one. In the second I stared down two [card]Vault Skirge[/card]s and a [card]Tempered Steel[/card] with the following hand:

[draft]Creeping Corrosion
Slice in Twain
Phyrexian Rebirth
Sunblast Angel[/draft]

and the following board:

[draft]Forest
Seachrome Coast
Seachrome Coast
Island
Plains[/draft]

From this point I drew three consecutive [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]es and died. Isn’t real life so much better than the movies?

My lack of repetitions in drafting New Phyrexia reared its head early, as I followed up a first pick [card]Grim Affliction[/card] with [card]Mindculling[/card], instead of the clearly superior pick of [card]Pith Driller[/card]. I settled into what I thought was a pretty nice Black/Blue deck but was dispatched with ease by both Bertil Elfgren’s excellent Black/Green poision deck and Christian Calcano’s White/Red aggro. I dropped dejectedly at 2-5.

As I sat eating a delicious sushi dinner with Matt Sperling, Brian Kibler, and Brad Nelson, I tried to figure out how I would spend my weekend. In a city such as Paris or Amsterdam, had I been eliminated on day one, I hope I would’ve taken advantage of the opportunity by seeing the various landmarks and sampling the culture. If I couldn’t play the game, why not see the world? In this case, with Grand Prix Kansas City the next weekend, I had an urge to keep gaming.

I played a few Scars block sealed decks on Saturday without much success, but the real fun came on Sunday. There I got to participate in two extremely fun limited formats that we don’t have much occasion to play anymore on the Pro Tour; Two-Headed Giant and Team Rochester.

Team Rochester was up first. Matt Sperling and I recruited reigning player of the year Brad Nelson. But who would dare play against such a collection of talent? Turns out we were able to find a trio of players willing to take on the challenge: Martin Juza, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and Ben Stark. Had we bitten off more than we could chew?

PV set the tone for the draft by opening Elesh Norn and Ben quickly followed suit by snapping up a first pick Urabrask in his pack. Meanwhile, we worked hard to establish the traditional advantageous color matchups you look for in Team Rochester: White/Green against Red/Green (damage prevention against burn), Black/Blue against White/Blue ([card]Doom Blade[/card]/[card]Enfeeblement[/card] type effects versus damage prevention) and Green/Red against Red/Black (fat against burn, tricks and -x/-x effects). Obviously, the unique character of each block means you can’t blindly set up these color matchups and let things fall where they may, but the consistent nature of the color pie makes this a good place to start.

Unfortunately for us, Ben continued his good fortune, opening a Skythiryx and [card]Hoard-Smelter Dragon[/card] to go with his Urabrask. Early on, we had Brad do a significant amount of counter-drafting, much to his chagrin. He felt we were neglecting his matchup and we implored him to stay the course and trust our judgment. We felt they made a small tactical error by letting Brad getting [card]Triumph of the Hordes[/card]. Brad was also able to get 2 [card]Turn to Slag[/card], a [card]Pistus Strike[/card], and an [card]Act of Aggression[/card], as well as a [card]Galvanoth[/card] to possibly power them out. Combined with a good amount of fat that we thought Ben might have trouble handling and we liked his chances.
After Brad finished defeating Ben 3-0, he was ready to team with me and Matt for the (as yet) mythical Team Grand Prix.

In the middle, we did everything we could to counter the Elesh Norn, aggressively selecting countermagic and removal at the expense of any offensive creatures. Luck was on our side, as well, as we were able to get Matt not just [card]Enslave[/card] and [card]Corrupted Conscience[/card], but [card]Volition Reins[/card] as well. Matt had a very good matchup against PV, barring an aggressive opening fueled by 2/2 flyers. As expected, Matt took his match 3-1.

My match against Martin was harder, as his [card]Blisterstick Shaman[/card]s and [card]Blightwidow[/card]s should provide difficult for my [card]Lost Leonin[/card]s and Glistener Elves. In the end, I was up 2-1 on the back of [card]Mortarpod[/card] and in a tight game 4 when Matt locked it up for our team.

The thing pros love about Team Rochester is that it tests more than just your ability to memorize pick orders or play well. You actually have to figure out how to pass an ever changing and very human test sitting directly across from you. Moreover, it rewards good social skills and teaches us communication, teamwork, and selflessness – exactly what Magic can and should be doing! I encourage you to get five friends together if you can and try it out. You’ll be surprised how much fun it is.

Next up, Matt and I successfully defeated all comers in Two-Headed Giant Draft. Here are some tips, if you enjoy playing at home.

-When you are drafting, try to eliminate a color if you can. Drafting 4 colors instead of 5 (split between two decks) will allow you to focus your decks a lot more and make more consistent mana bases.

-Instants are king! You especially want as much countermagic and cheap combat tricks as possible. [card]Mental Misstep[/card], [card]Soul Parry[/card], and [card]Seize the Initiative[/card] are great, but cards like [card]Turn the Tide[/card], [card]Turn Aside[/card] and [card]Blunt the Assault[/card] really shine. One Blunt the Assault we cast against Conley Woods and Josh Utter-Leyton netted us 9 life and prevented something like 14 damage.

-Try to build one tap-out and one reactive deck. If both of your decks are tapping out on your turn consistently, you’re going to be at the mercy of the inevitable bevy of tricks your opponents will have and their attack step will be a nightmare!

-Expensive, vulnerable creatures are completely unplayable. Ignore creatures like [card]Saberclaw Golem[/card], [card]Slash Panther[/card], or [card]Tine Shrike[/card]. One of your opponents will surely have cheaper removal and will get value.

-Choose to draw. Since both players get to draw on the first turn, the advantage of having the extra card is doubled.

But you didn’t just come here for Team Rochester and 2HG, did you?

Finally we come to the subject of “new” Standard, unencumbered by the oppressive menaces, [card]Jace the Mind Sculptor[/card] and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]. When confronted with a new format, I have a checklist I like to use to figure out how to get started. I’ll share it with you now.

Step 1: Check to see if [card]Steppe Lynx[/card] is legal. If no, wait until someone else breaks the format. If yes, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Check to see if Basic Plains is legal. If no, wait until it is. If yes, go to Step 3.
Step 3: Build a deck with Plains and [card]Steppe Lynx[/card].

With my natural inclination is to revisit Boros, we should first look at the last person to have success in a major event with the deck, Chikara Nakajima at Grand Prix Singapore. Here was the list he used:

[deck]4 Goblin Guide
1 Hero of Oxid Ridge
4 Mirran Crusader
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Batterskull
3 Dismember
3 Koth of the Hammer
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Sword of War and Peace
4 Arid Mesa
4 Marsh Flats
6 Mountain
6 Plains
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Terramorphic Expanse
Sideboard
2 Arc Trail
3 Divine Offering
1 Gideon Jura
4 Kor Firewalker
3 Spellskite
1 Sword of Body and Mind
1 Sword of Feast and Famine[/deck]

Let’s take a look at each of these choices and evaluate them in light of the new realities of the format.

4 [card]Goblin Guide[/card] – A staple of Boros, they nevertheless get slightly worse after the bannings. Two of the important functions of Goblin Guide were to take a weakened Jace by surprise and provide a cheap body with Haste to carry a Sword. It’s very likely we’ll find room for them in our version, but we’re going to need to find a way to keep the relevant later in the game.

1 [card]Hero of Oxid Ridge[/card] – Hero was your best way to roll through opposing [card]Squadron Hawk[/card]s and [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]s. Now that the banning of one should lead to a decrease in popularity for the other, he loses a lot of effectiveness. The cheap creatures of the new Standard will be 2-power creatures such as Lotus Cobra and Fauna Shaman. Sadly, Hero is out.

4 [card]Mirran Crusader[/card] – An interesting case. Before the bannings Crusader served three functions. He could attack through or block [card]Batterskull[/card]’s Germ token all day. He punished random Vampires players that tried to prey on Caw-Blade. And he carried [card]Sword of War and Peace[/card] better than anyone else, resulting in his fair share of Turn-4 kills. Things have changed. And in the modern environment, I’d expect a lot more people prepared with [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s, [card]Pyroclasm[/card]s, and [card]Slagstorm[/card]s. We can’t tap three mana without reasonable hope of recouping our investment in the form of damage. Crusader is out.

4 [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] – Hawk was the glue in Boros. He refilled your hand, carried equipment, and prevented you from getting hit by opposing Hawks carrying swords. In order to find room for Hawk, we need to find a way to make him more relevant in the midgame. He’s on the chopping block, but we’ll come back to him.

4 [card]Steppe Lynx[/card] – Look at your opponent when you cast it turn one, on the play. The cacophony of emotions, mostly despair, will tell you all you need to know. I’d play 25, if I could.

4 [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] – We’re going to need to find a way to find to compete in the mid/late game without him.

1 [card]Batterskull[/card] – Other decks might be able to play Batterskull fairly, without his best friend. Our deck is too aggressive. Batterskull is out.

3 [card]Dismember[/card] – One of Dismember’s main functions used to be blowing through Batterskull tokens. Now it’s our best defense against Deceiver Exarch and will let us slow down Valakut by killing their [card]Overgrown Battlement[/card] or [card]Lotus Cobra[/card]. It will survive.

3 [card]Koth of the Hammer[/card] – Some of the biggest winners in the bannings were the other Planeswalkers, such as [card]Jace Beleren[/card], who finally get their time to shine. Koth is now free from the threat of end-of-turn Batterskull murder, and is now poised to do some serious work on the metagame. He should be extremely strong now, with potential weakness only against Vengevine decks. He’s definitely safe, and we may want a 4th.

4 [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] – In.

2 [card]Sword of War and Peace[/card] – Out. The Swords are just too slow for what we want to be doing. We can’t tap 5 mana and use a card and get blown out by removal.

This leaves us with:
4 [card]Goblin Guide[/card] – maybe
4 [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] – maybe
4 [card]Steppe Lynx[/card]
3 [card]Dismember[/card]
3 [card]Koth of the Hammer[/card]
4 [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]

22 Cards. Here are top candidates to include in the deck:

[card]Plated Geopede[/card] – The obvious inclusion to replace Stoneforge Mystic, Geopede benefits greatly from its departure. It never needed the equipment she would fetch in order to affect the board, and now no longer has to worry about opposing Mortarpods or Swords of War and Peace. In addition, the lack of Jace’s bouncing ability is one less weapon for Blue decks to stop Geopede from crashing in for 3, 5, or more.

[card]Adventuring Gear[/card] – Here is the equipment we want to run now. Adventuring Gear was always the best equipment to draw naturally, as you didn’t need to “cheat” it into play with Mystic. Now, it’s the best way to make sure our Squadron Hawks and Goblin Guides hit hard enough to matter later in the game.

[card]Journey to Nowhere[/card] – This is a card which I’m sure will enter and leave my maindeck many times in the next few months. Weak against Exarch-Twin and Blue control decks, it’s an excellent answer to Vengevine and a must-have against Titans.

[card]Arc Trail[/card] – Now is not the time for this card. Great in the mirror, but the ability to catch a Mystic and a Hawk unaware was the main function for this spell. If Tempered Steel ports itself into Standard, this could be a good way to keep them low on volume before they are able to cast the enchantment. It’s a sideboard card for now.

[card]Burst Lightning[/card] – Is it time for the return of Burst Lightning? I don’t think so. I’ve never been a huge fan of Burn in Boros, preferring recurring sources of damage. The fact that it costs one too many to catch the Exarch-Twin combo on curve is the death sentence for this card’s inclusion.

[card]Cunning Sparkmage[/card] – There was once a time, when Squadron Hawk was one of the top 5 cards in Standard, that we might have wanted this card. Unfortunately, losing the ability to Mystic for Basilisk Collar significantly limits Sparkmage’s late-game efficacy. I think it’s out.

[card]Emeria Angel[/card] – I enjoy Emeria Angel and have played her before. Unfortunately we really need a few turns with her for her to take over the game and we no longer have the Swords to put on the army she often leaves behind. Squadron Hawk will do a better job wearing Adventuring Gear, at a cheaper price. There is just too much competition at 4 mana, including:

[card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] – Hmm, now we’re talking. This is definitely an option for us. Without the threat of Jace, Hero could compliment Koth at a must-answer threat.

[card]Ajani Goldmane[/card] – And I’m in love. This solves a lot of our problems. A card I suggested on a lark to Matt before Grand Prix Dallas, Ajani Goldmane plays extremely nicely with Squadron Hawk and Plated Geopede and will quickly destroy any Green deck in our way. Decks attempting to beat us with Pyroclasm or Slagstorm are going to have to cast their spell immediately, opening the door for a new wave that we can immediately pump. And now that we’re including Ajani, Mirran Crusader suddenly becomes not just playable, but excellent again. We’re going to make room for him too, since we’d otherwise have a hole at 3 drop.

Here is our new list:
[deck]4 Goblin Guide
4 Steppe Lynx
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Plated Geopede
2 Mirran Crusader
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Adventuring Gear
3 Dismember
3 Koth of the Hammer
2 Ajani Goldmane
1 Hero of the Bladehold
4 Arid Mesa
4 Marsh Flats
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Evolving Wilds
6 Plains
6 Mountain[/deck]

Most of Chikara’s sideboard can remain intact. Because we lose the ability to Mystic for a Pro-Green sword, we probably need more action against Valakut. As the new metagame begins to evolve, we’ll need to change the sideboard to adapt.

[deck]4 Kor Firewalker
3 Spellskite
3 Divine Offering
2 Arc Trail
2 Mark of Mutiny
1 Gideon Jura[/deck]

I look forward to writing many more articles for ChannelFireball and hearing what everyone thinks.

Thanks for reading,
Paul