Today I’m going to talk about the deck that almost all of Team ChannelFireball and Face-to-Face played at the PT: UR Thopters.
The original UR Thopters deck list was met with a lot of skepticism from basically everyone, which was understandable since it was a collection of very bad cards that supposedly worked well together. For some of the players in our team, the skepticism vanished after playing some series with the deck. For other players, the skepticism remained until the day of the tournament. As for me, I’m still a little skeptical, but our results with the deck were overall very good—we had the second highest win Constructed win % of the big teams (60.49%), we put a copy in 2nd place in the hands of Mike Sigrist, and a lot of people had big win streaks to reach the levels they needed. Other people also did well with what I believe to be an inferior version of the deck, so that’s a point in its favor too.
With that said, UR Thopters was a torch that burned very brightly, for a very small amount of time. GP San Diego followed, and everyone was playing Dromoka’s Commands, Reclamation Sages, Unravel the Aethers and whatnot. As a result, we saw very few Thopters at the top tables, despite it being a popular deck. This is a followup that basically everyone knew would happen.
What happens now, though? Well, the same thing that always happens —people will see that Thopters did not do well at the tournament, and they will cut some of the hate cards. If you wanted to play Thopters, last week was very bad for you. If you still want to play it, though, GP London might be a good opportunity. Today I’m going to talk about the deck so that if you do want to play it, at least you’re more informed about it!
The Deck List
This is a very aggressive deck that is very different from what I usually play (which explains part of my skepticism, I guess). Cards in this deck are either VERY GOOD (Ensoul Artifact, Ghostfire Blade, Hangarback Walker) or VERY BAD (Springleaf Drum, Phyrexian Revoker, Chief of the Foundry). Whether you draw the good or the bad part of the deck is going to influence your win percentage more than how you play or what you play against.
Ensoul Artifact is the most important card in the deck by far—in some matchups, such as RG Devotion, the game is a joke if you draw it but very hard if you don’t. Having four Stubborn Denials in your deck magnifies this by a lot, since the card is often great with Ensoul but bad without it, but we thought it was worth it anyway. Ensoul is to this deck what Bitterblossom is to Faeries, or Ojutai to Esper Dragons—games with it are very different than games without it. You will win the majority of the games you have those cards against any opposition, so all you need is to do passably when you do not have them.
I believe this build is better than the other artifact decks in the tournament. I don’t think Engineer is a particularly good card, and Whirler Rogue is just an improvement over Pia and Kiran Nalaar that happens to be easier to cast. But I also think that the last couple slots in this deck are bad, so they are very customizable—it’s possible that the correct build of the deck includes 0 Springleaf Drums or 0 Chiefs, for example.
The one card that they played and we didn’t that I think has potential is Tomb of the Spirit Dragon. It’s kind of clunky, but it can win you a lot of games in tight races. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was correct to play 1 or 2 of these in the main.
This deck mulligans very aggressively. This is due to the fact that some of your cards are so much better than the others that they are easily worth multiple cards—a 5-card hand with Ensoul is often just better than a 7-card hand without it. At the finals of the PT, Siggy mulliganed down to three cards. Most decks can never win on three cards. This deck can, if they are the right three cards. You will often finish the games you win with many superfluous cards in your hand anyway.
If you play UR Thopters, you must not settle for an average hand—always try to go for a broken one. Many hands look good, but are actually quite bad. Imagine, for example, Springleaf Drum, Phyrexian Revoker, Chief of the Foundry, 4 lands. This hand has lands, a 1-drop, a 2-drop, and a 3-drop. But how does it win the game? By topdecking Ensoul or Ghostfire Blade, that’s how. If I have to rely on those cards, I’d rather have six (seven) extra chances at them.
As a general rule, keep any hand that has Ensoul, an early (0-1 mana) target, and mana to cast it. Mulligan any hand that doesn’t have Ensoul, Ghostfire Blade, or Hangarback Walker. Mulligan any hand with 5+ lands in it unless it also has Ensoul and a target.
The new mulligan rule helps this deck a lot, since it lets you keep hands that have your key cards but only one land. When you’re drawing extra lands or useless stuff like Ornithopter, then scrying them to the bottom is almost like drawing a card. That’s the beauty of playing bad cards, I guess.
Mono-Red is an even matchup. It depends a lot on how you draw, less so on how they draw (though if they have cards like Smash to Smithereens then what they draw also counts). In a way, this surge of Mono-Red’s popularity (as opposed to Red/Green Burn) is good for artifacts, since Atarka’s Command always deals 6+ damage (and can block fliers) and the RG decks often had Destructive Revelry against you. Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst also excelled at blocking a 5/5 for multiple turns, and Joel’s version had zero of both. If you have a blind Revoker, name Lightning Berserker or Chandra if you know they have that (though if you name Chandra and they have Chandra they will likely just kill it).
This matchup is just a race. Key cards are Ensoul Artifact, Hangarback Walker, and Stubborn Denial in some spots. Mulligan aggressively for the first two. Chief is a fine blocker, especially if paired with Ghostfire Blade, which makes it immune to any one burn spell. Whirler Rogue is also good by providing multiple attackers and a way to get through ground stalls that lead to you being burned out. If given the choice, Ensoul Ornithopter, but it’s more important to attack quickly than it is to have an unkillable threat (i.e. in a hand of Darksteel Citadel, Drum, and Ensoul, you should Ensoul + attack turn two rather than waiting for t3 Ensoul most of the time).
Some people on our team liked to bring in Roast in this matchup, though I preferred just keeping in more creatures (and I think people will cut Firedrinker Satyr—if they don’t, Roast is great). With this deck, you must always be careful to not cut all your bad cards. Sure, they are bad, but they fill a role, you still need dudes to equip with Ghostfire Blade, and so on.
Devotion is a favorable matchup, but not by a lot. Any hand with Ensoul is great for you, though you should always try to put it on a flier since they can fill up the ground very quickly. Games in which you don’t draw Ensoul are unfavorable, but you’re more likely to have one than not if you mulligan very aggressively (and, again, you should). Phyrexian Revoker is great in this matchup and should often just be played early naming whatever mana guy they have out. If they have nothing in play, then the correct name is usually Polukranos.
If you don’t have Ensoul, then your best bets to win are unblockable creatures—fliers and Whirler Rogue. This will usually involve charging a Hangarback to 2 and then Shrapnel Blasting something like a Courser, a Polukranos, or a Whisperwood to get two tokens—sometimes even a mana guy. Turn-2 Hangarback, turn-3 charge + Blast is a common play. Your no-Ensoul draws aren’t fast enough to compete with them, so you have to disrupt them. If you have Ensoul, then you can often just blast them because you become much faster.
Your Stubborn Denials are very useless game one, so don’t hesitate to throw one away for a small potential advantage. Even if you don’t have ferocious, it can still disrupt their plans. If you see them counting mana and they play a Xenagos, then Force Spike it—maybe by paying 1 they now can’t +1 Xenagos and follow it up with something else (it’s not like the Denial was doing anything anyway).
Sideboarding here is very easy—you take out cards that do nothing or very little for cards that are good. Roasts should be used liberally to kill mana guys with most of your hands, though if they already have plenty of mana then you save it.
UB is a fairly easy matchup because they take forever to kill you and some of your threats (Hangarback, Ensouled Citadel) are very hard to deal with. If you can land an Ensoul on a Citadel, then it’s almost impossible to lose, so it’s often worth waiting for them to tap out instead of running it into 3 open mana. Just be careful not to overextend too much into Languish—you usually want to hold Whirler Rogue until after they play it. Revoker should usually name Jace (the front side!), but you might want to name Perilous Vault, Ashiok, or Ugin depending on the situation. Also remember that you can sacrifice your Thopters to Shrapnel Blast in response to a Bile Blight.
Whirler Rogue is not necessarily bad against them, but you are a very land-light deck and you’re bringing in 4 cards that cost four mana already and are considerably better. Stroke is not that excellent, but I think it’s still good (counters Dig, Languish, Silence the Believers, and Perilous Vault).
This is the one matchup where Ensoul is not your best card. It’s still good—especially on the play when it often deals 10 damage even if they can deal with it—but it is less reliable because they have Downfalls, Abzan Charms, and often blockers like Den Protector. I believe this matchup is slightly favorable as well.
This matchup is a race in game 1, and if the Abzan player understands that, then things will be much worse for you. Luckily, most people don’t, and they won’t do things like play a turn-2 Den Protector to get some damage through. Their best card is Siege Rhino by miles and most games you lose involve them drawing multiple copies.
I like taking out one Denial, since it’s not that hard to play against (especially if they have cards like Bile Blight, which they can play in response). You make your deck a bit slower post-board, but you have a lot of answers to Rhino now, so you can afford to be slower. If you play Thopter Spy Network on an even board (or, better yet, an empty board), it will win you the game.
Post-sideboard, you have to watch out for two cards. The first is Dromoka’s Command, which does everything—kills Ensoul, kills your guys, protects their Rhino and their face. If they draw Dromoka’s Command, it becomes considerably harder to win. The second is Tragic Arrogance. My Abzan opponent cast Tragic Arrogance against me at the PT, I read it 5 times, and still didn’t quite understand the extent to which I was being demolished. Then he cast it a second time, and a third time in our match, and I finally understood that I can never beat it. That card was never even on our radar for the PT, but it’s very, very good against you. End Hostilities is also good, since it kills Ensoul on Citadel and also Ghostfire Blade. Languish and Drown in Sorrow, however, are not very dangerous and you can usually play around them if you have a Blade.
Beating UR Thopter
I think Thopter is even or favored against most of the popular decks, but it is a very easy deck to hate out if you choose to. Cards like Unravel the Aether, Dromoka’s Command, Tragic Arrogance, Reclamation Sage, and Smash to Smithereens are likely much better than whatever the Thopter deck is doing. I think GW is a good shell (you could play Kibler’s 9-1 deck, for example), since it can easily play 4 maindeck Commands (which are also good against Red) and can sideboard a couple of the others. Abzan Aggro is also a good choice, since it can play Command plus Anafenza, which hoses Hangarback.
Because this deck is so easy to beat and so popular right now, I do not recommend it for London. I think it won’t perform well (though I’m sure some blessed soul will draw Ensoul every round and kill everyone regardless. I just wouldn’t count on it being me). I think, however, that it’s a playable deck. For San Diego it basically wasn’t, but for GP London I think the metagame has “unwarped” enough that if you really want to play this deck, you can. I also think it can be a good deck down the road, once the hate has died out—people can only play so many tournaments in which they face 0 Thopter decks before they remove those Unravel from the sideboard, after all.