Recurring Nightmares – Failed Brew

This late in a Standard season, I tend to get bored. Usually I’ve been playing the same deck for a while, and it gets to a point where I just can’t stand the thought of sleeving up the same deck for another week’s worth of events. I don’t have infinite opportunities to play—even in low-stakes events like FNM or Game Day, sometimes you just get a hankering for something different, and need to express yourself through your deck list. I decided I wanted to do something new and different for Game Day last weekend, and I didn’t care if I won or lost, as long as I had fun with something off the wall.

It was with this in mind that I asked my teammates to help me come up with a halfway decent [ccProd]Phenax, God of Deception[/ccProd] deck.

When Born of the Gods was being spoiled, I took an interest in Phenax as a potentially interesting addition to a nearly-mono-black control deck, and in fact posted such a list in an article at that time. This is the list I posted, which was my idea of a “starting point.”

[ccdeck]4 Duskmantle Seer
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Desecration Demon
3 Phenax, God of Deception
3 Ashiok Nightmare Weaver
4 Bile Blight
4 Hero’s Downfall
2 Devour Flesh
4 Thoughtseize
2 Whip of Erebos
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Watery Grave
4 Mutavault
14 Swamp[/ccdeck]

I’m currently recovering from a temporary obsession with [ccProd]Duskmantle Seer[/ccProd]. This list is a product of that obsession, almost as much as any attempt to make Phenax realistic. It’s also pretty much Mono-Black Devotion, with some bad cards replacing good ones. Fortunately, I have some… creative deckbuilders on my local team, and they were more than willing to take a dive off the deep end. Cue deck list 1.0:

[ccdeck]4 Temple of Malice
4 Temple of Deceit
3 Steam Vents
4 Watery Grave
2 Blood Crypt
2 Island
1 Swamp
1 Mountain
3 Mutavault
3 Breaking Entering
3 Phenax, God of Deception
4 Wall of Frost
4 Lobber Crew
4 Frostburn Weird
4 Agent of Fates
2 Mindreaver
2 Mnemonic Wall
4 Triton Tactics
2 Warped Physique
2 Eye Gouge
1 Hidden Strings
1 Fated Infatuation
—–Sideboard—–
1 Phenax, God of Deception
3 Dark Betrayal
2 Tidebinder Mage
1 Turn and Burn
2 Dimir Charm
4 Thoughtseize
1 Breaking Entering
1 Warped Physique[/ccdeck]

This list has some pretty awesome stuff going on, and some things which were questionable at best. On the plus side, using high-toughness creatures like [ccProd]Wall of Frost[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Frostburn Weird[/ccProd] alongside Phenax seems like a surefire way to mill the opponent out rapidly. Including [ccProd]Lobber Crew[/ccProd] is a fantastic idea, and it means every multicolor card you cast mills the opponent for 4. It also allows you to win through non-combat damage if things go dramatically wrong, which is a bit of a pipe dream but still theoretically possible.

[ccProd]Agent of the Fates[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Hidden Strings[/ccProd] is cute, and a way to continually stop your opponent from having a board presence. [ccProd]Mnemonic Wall[/ccProd] plus [ccProd]Fated Infatuation[/ccProd] gives you a plethora of blockers with which to mill out the opponent via Phenax.

The real highlight of this list is the full set of [ccProd]Triton Tactics[/ccProd], which are intended to untap a pair of walls and add an additional six cards worth of mill to the pile. They also allow your walls to survive attacks bolstered by [ccProd]Ghor-Clan Rampager[/ccProd], and can lock down a pair of attackers for a turn to buy you time.

My initial reaction to this list was interest, but I knew the [ccProd]Agent of Fates[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Mindreaver[/ccProd] combinations seemed ambitious at best. I made the following changes, to hopefully have some amount of interaction with the opponent rather than just blindly goldfishing:

Main Deck

-4 [ccProd]Agent of Fates[/ccProd]
-2 [ccProd]Mindreaver[/ccProd]
-1 [ccProd]Hidden Strings[/ccProd]
-1 [ccProd]Island[/ccProd]

+4 [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]
+2 [ccProd]Anger of the Gods[/ccProd]
+1 [ccProd]Warped Physique[/ccProd]
+1 [ccProd]Steam Vents[/ccProd]

Sideboard

-4 [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]
-1 [ccProd]Breaking // Entering[/ccProd]
-1 [ccProd]Phenax, God of Deception[/ccProd]

+3 [ccProd]Duress[/ccProd]
+2 [ccProd]Drown in Sorrow[/ccProd]
+1 [ccProd]Pithing Needle[/ccProd]

With that, I built the deck on Magic Online, and got to battling.

It quickly became apparent that the deck was incapable of dealing with a resolved permanent. I knew I needed some kind of removal in the main deck, and probably more in the board—because regardless of the presence of cards like [ccProd]Sphinx’s Revelation[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Jace, Architect of Thought[/ccProd], Standard is a format that revolves around creatures. If you can’t deal with something as simple as a [ccProd]Scavenging Ooze[/ccProd], you’re going to find yourself on the losing end of most games. When your win condition is a five-mana enchantment that doesn’t impact the board, you’re going to lose a LOT. So we needed ways to impact the board.

We also need ways to win the game, because this deck has a HARD time doing that. All of your creatures are easily removable, and you don’t have any kind of “real” pressure to apply in order to allow your disruption to be relevant. In my early experience, there were two kinds of wins: either I would open a hand full of [ccProd]Thoughtseize[/ccProd]s and removal and run them out of cards before dropping a Phenax, or I would be paired against [ccProd]Maze’s End[/ccProd], which I couldn’t lose to. In an effort to resolve both the problems outlined above, I made the following changes:

-2 [ccProd]Triton’s Tactics[/ccProd]
-2 [ccProd]Mnemonic Wall[/ccProd]
-1 [ccProd]Fated Infatuation[/ccProd]
-2 [ccProd]Eye Gouge[/ccProd]

+2 [ccProd]Breaking // Entering[/ccProd]
+1 [ccProd]Phenax, God of Deception[/ccProd]
+2 [ccProd]Jace, Memory Adept[/ccProd]
+2 [ccProd]Ultimate Price[/ccProd]

The testing continued. And continued. And continued. And with all of this testing, came losing. I was tweaking the list by a card or two here and there to try and shore up some of the issues. I never intended this deck to be the next big thing, but I wanted it to be capable of holding its own in a few matchups, so I didn’t spend the whole day on Game Day losing and being miserable. Losing is OK, but not at the cost of having fun. Out came the [ccProd]Mutavault[/ccProd]s, to try and hit our difficult mana requirements more reliably. Out came the [ccProd]Dimir Charm[/ccProd]s, to make room for [ccProd]Underworld Connections[/ccProd]. I found the deck unlikely to ever have a devoted Phenax, and it had a difficult time keeping up with some decks that drew far more cards. Connections worked out well.

I started winning some games—often on the back of [ccProd]Breaking // Entering[/ccProd], which was rapidly turning into the best card in the deck. By no means is it a good card, but in the context of this deck, it was doing what I wanted it to do. In one game, I cast Entering on an opposing [ccProd]Abhorrent Overlord[/ccProd], milled them for 6, and then chump blocked long enough to set up a lethal mill with the 6/6 plus tokens. In another game, I used Entering on a [ccProd]Brimaz[/ccProd] and created my own token army. Throughout, I was noticing the cards I continued to enjoy drawing were the interactive spells, and I hated the walls every single time they entered my hand. I didn’t mind [ccProd]Frostburn Weird[/ccProd], as it tended to attack more than sit there as a blocker, but each and every [ccProd]Wall of Frost[/ccProd] or Crew I drew made me want to spew.

We had added a ton of removal, and alongside our walls (though I still detested them), we were doing great against creature decks like RG Monsters—but their planeswalkers were starting to be an issue. I found it difficult to answer any ‘walker, as there are so few threats in our deck. This is true of most reactive decks, but in the current Standard at least the other control decks have [ccProd]Detention Sphere[/ccProd]. Planeswalkers were the reason I added the initial [ccProd]Pithing Needle[/ccProd] to the board, but one Needle wasn’t going to cut it—especially against a deck like the aforementioned RG deck, where a reactive card like Needle does nothing when your opponent is beating you down.

In order to shore up the weaknesses in the deck, I kept adding more and more removal, and more [ccProd]Jace, Memory Adept[/ccProd], and continued to cut the parts of the deck that were essential in making it a Phenax-based deck. At one point, I ended up cutting the walls altogether, arriving at the following list:

[ccdeck]4 Temple of Malice
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Steam Vents
4 Watery Grave
4 Blood Crypt
2 Island
1 Swamp
1 Mountain
4 Breaking // Entering
4 Phenax, God of Deception
4 Underworld Connections
4 Jace, Memory Adept
4 Frostburn Weird
4 Thoughtseize
3 Anger of the Gods
3 Hero’s Downfall
2 Ultimate Price
4 Warped Physique[/ccdeck]

Obviously this is not an optimal list anymore, and I recognized that I had strayed pretty far from the original point of the exercise. We were now in the territory of a Grixis control deck that just happened to run Phenax and Frostburn Weird, but even as such the deck was still losing more than what I would consider an acceptable amount.

On top of that, we were now starting to lose our previously good matchups. Decks like Maze’s End, which was a bye, started to be difficult. Somehow players started running things like maindeck [ccProd]Elixir of Immortality[/ccProd]—which, alongside a [ccProd]Kiora[/ccProd]—was nearly impossible to beat before they get their Mazes or Emblems active.

I started to get discouraged. I found excuses to play other decks, to “take a break” from testing the brew. I picked up my trusty Mono-B deck, and entered into a few 2-mans with it, just to remember what winning felt like. It felt good. I set the program down for the night, and decided to sleep on it, to see if I could come up with anything else in the morning. I woke up the day before Game Day, and played a bit more—to the same miserable results. Finally, I had to throw in the towel.

Brew1

(Names withheld to protect the innocent)

Fortunately, as mentioned above, the sheer act of winning a match of Magic had newfound attraction to me, so playing Mono-Black had gone from just another lame day to Paint it Black. The story doesn’t end here, as our brewer extraordinaire Jason could not leave well-enough alone. The original list had been his brainchild, and he hadn’t put the hours of depressing work in as I had. He checked in to ask about some of the configurations I had made toward the end of my testing, and then left to think and drink (or brew and brew, if you prefer)—where he does his best work.

Brew2

What Jason ended up with by the end of his “testing” session was a new take on the original list, with some of the lessons I had learned incorporated into his new build. He brought the following to Game Day:

[ccdeck]4 Thoughtseize
4 Retraction Helix
2 Triton Tactics
4 Mindreaver
4 Duskmantle Guildmage
2 Wight of Precinct Six
2 Hidden Strings
2 Dimir Charm
4 Agent of Fates
3 Phenax, God of Deception
1 Jace, Memory Adept
4 Breaking Entering
4 Temple of Deceit
3 Temple of Malice
4 Watery Grave
2 Blood Crypt
3 Swamp
7 Island
1 Mutavault
—–Sideboard—–
1 Pithing Needle
2 Dimir Charm
2 Ultimate Price
3 Dark Betrayal
3 Duress
1 Hero’s Downfall
2 Wight of Precinct Six
1 Warped Physique[/ccdeck]

Sometimes it’s hard to convince people that their original ideas aren’t really all that great, but Jason was willing to put his money where his mouth is to prove me wrong, and there isn’t much more you can ask of someone than that. He added the [ccProd]Agent of Fates[/ccProd] package back in, this time pairing it with Retraction Helix to get a tempo 2-for-1. He also added a better array of early drops, as one of the largest issues with the early versions was the glut of five-drops that slowed you down from being able to interact early.

A full set of [ccProd]Mindreaver[/ccProd]s works surprisingly well with the Retraction Helices, giving you a way to turn on the inspiration trigger without needing to put the 2/2 body into combat. Jason said the [ccProd]Duskmantle Guildmage[/ccProd]s overperformed, combining with Jace to steal games when they had no right to do so, and being better-than-Lava-Axe with Breaking // Entering. Jason’s real breakthrough was [ccProd]Wight of Precinct Six[/ccProd], which was most definitely a card I wish we had earlier in the testing process, but his conclusion was that this was very matchup-dependant, as it’s basically worse than Squire against control opponents.

To my admitted surprise, Jason finished just shy of Top 8 at Game Day, losing in the win-and-in round to another teammate who was on UWr control. I would say he overperformed given the completely rogue nature of the deck, but he also has a tendency to do very well with his brews—much better than anyone else does with them, for certain.

He suggested a few changes to the deck after the event, which may help any of you who have the kind of masochistic streak that playing such a list requires. His suggested final build of the deck:

[ccdeck]4 Thoughtseize
2 Retraction Helix
2 Psychic Strike
4 Hero’s Downfall
3 Herald of Torment
3 Nighthowler
4 Mindreaver
4 Duskmantle Guildmage
2 Hidden Strings
3 Phenax, God of Deception
1 Jace, Memory Adept
4 Breaking & Entering
4 Temple of Deceit
3 Temple of Malice
4 Watery Grave
2 Blood Crypt
3 Swamp
7 Island
1 Mutavault
—–Sideboard—–
1 Pithing Needle
2 Ultimate Price
3 Dark Betrayal
3 Duress
4 Wight of Precinct Six
2 Psychic Strike[/ccdeck]

His list is beginning to move in the same direction that mine did—adding more threats (in his case, those that can attack, where mine were just more Jaces), adding more removal and answers to the threats of the opponent, and cutting the cutesy stuff. We’ll see if he picks the deck up again, and how much further down the rabbit hole he’s willing to take it. Personally, I can’t take it anywhere any more.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the anatomy of developing a brew, from the inception of the idea through the testing process and into the final build. Despite the fact that the deck didn’t turn out to be the next best thing, I found it to be an interesting case study, and the process of analyzing the weaknesses and iterating through lists to try and accommodate for those weaknesses is the same whether you’re testing a totally new brew for FNM, or testing for optimal builds at the Pro Tour level. Certainly had this been the PT we would have abandoned this deck early on (if we bothered with it at all), but one of the benefits of lower stakes events is the ability to play around with inferior strategies and enjoy some cards you don’t always get to see in Constructed.

Best of luck with your brews.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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