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Silvestri Says – Tempered-er Steel

Today we look at Tempered Steel, which will be one of the defining decks of early Standard play, despite gaining almost nothing from Innistrad. In a shock to no-one, losing only two cards and being the best deck in Block by a fair margin is a good place to be in the new format. Now throw in that Tempered Steel will be tied with red for being the fastest deck in the format and there are a lot of things to be happy about if you play or want to play Steel.

To begin we need to look at Block primarily and not Standard for our answers to how much defense is enough against our deck. This may sound odd since Standard would logically have more powerful defenses and a “better” version of Steel. Unfortunately what many don’t realize is that Steel was shoehorned into an aggressive role it could barely manage against every single deck in Standard. Steel was barely fast enough to race opposing strategies when met with resistance and with decks like Valakut and Splinter Twin available to people, Steel couldn’t adapt very much in the way of resilience or it would be left behind in too many important matches.

When looking at Block however it becomes clear that Steel was not only the benchmark of speed in the format, but it didn’t need cards like [card]Ornithopter[/card], [card]Vault Skirge[/card], [card]Porcelain Legionnaire[/card] or [card]Steel Overseer[/card] to achieve it. Instead the deck focused on beating up decks specifically designed to battle Steel and ignore the best cards against the average Steel, [card]Creeping Corrosion[/card] and two-for-one creatures like [card]Oxidda Scrapmelter[/card]. Instead [card]Indomitable Angel[/card] and [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card], cards that received no advantage from the namesake of the deck were used. Not only were these cards effective against nearly every deck in the format, Hero specifically could ignore almost all the commonly played removal in the format and kill in practically just two swings.

Now we have a format where Tempered Steel is incredibly fast and capable of surviving vast quantities of removal thrown at it. Instead of watching people pack a bunch of sick spells against it and try to beef up the flavor of creature they like to play or splash [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] into every single deck I see a lot of germs with no chance against Steel. A deck which could consistently survive getting its first four or five drops blown away gets to rumble with UW decks packing a total of five removal spells? Hate to tell you, but [card]Invisible Stalker[/card] or random flier plus [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card] doesn’t exactly bother Steel. Even [card]Sword of War and Peace[/card] is often too slow to race without help from [card]Gideon Jura[/card].

Let’s not pretend that UW decks are the only dreamers though, what about all the Pod decks which just can’t interact with you until Acidic Slime comes online? Same goes for all the midrange decks that think they can get away with a couple of Dismember or Oblivion Ring and try to rumble against Steel. Considering most of the deck’s creatures fly or can trade-off with a Steel in play, this isn’t a fool-proof plan. The decks that seem the most prepared seem to be UB Snapcaster decks which have plenty of spot removal built-in with [card]Doom Blade[/card] and [card]Dismember[/card], recursion from [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] and either [card]Black Sun’s Zenith[/card] or [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card] to deal with Shrine. At least one deck archetype has a real chance without undergoing a massive overhaul.

Enough gloom and doom though, let’s focus on what Tempered Steel has and will look like.

Tempered Steel played by Luis Scott-Vargas – Top 8 in PT Nagoya 2011
[deck]4 Memnite
1 Vault Skirge
4 Signal Pest
4 Leonin Relic-Warder
3 Blade Splicer
4 Hero of Bladehold
4 Dispatch
4 Tempered Steel
4 Glint Hawk Idol
4 Origin Spellbomb
2 Mox Opal
18 Plains
4 Inkmoth Nexus
Sideboard
2 Indomitable Archangel
1 Dismember
2 Marrow Shards
4 Mutagenic Growth
2 Contested War Zone
2 Elspeth Tirel
2 Revoke Existence[/deck]

Fast forward to today and look at what the fastest decks in the format are shaping up to be. A significantly softened Mono Red, Tempered Steel and perhaps a B/R Aggro deck taking advantage of the new Innistrad Vampires and [card]Reckless Waif[/card]. No longer does Steel need to focus on being the fastest thing in the room in every match, because it already is with just the core cards. Obviously we don’t want to copy the Block or Standard decks card for card even if no Innistrad or M12 cards are added simply because the metagame is different. If people focus purely on the speedy aspect of Steel I find they just give up points after sideboarding and open themselves up to blowouts against increased spot removal.

Here’s Ari Lax Standard build from GP: Pittsburgh which I find to be one of the best examples of Steel in pre-Innistrad Standard.

Ari Lax – Top 64 at GP: Pittsburgh
[deck]4 Memnite
4 Signal Pest
4 Spellskite
4 Steel Overseer
4 Vault Skirge
4 Tempered Steel
2 Dismember
4 Dispatch
4 Glint Hawk Idol
3 Shrine of Loyal Legions
2 Mox Opal
17 Plains
4 Inkmoth Nexus
Sideboard:
3 Hero of Bladehold
2 Indomitable Archangel
3 Kor Firewalker
1 Act of Aggression
3 Celestial Purge
1 Mox Opal
1 Revoke Existence
1 Contested War Zone[/deck]

Both builds of Steel are configured to be able to beat sweepers and have very few do-nothings in their maindeck. The majority of Standard Steel builds had [card]Ornithopter[/card] and you’ll notice that was replaced with a card that’s purely trying to keep Tempered Steel and other valuable artifacts alive. In the Block build LSV presents, [card]Blade Splicer[/card] and [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] take center stage and they aren’t even affected by the namesake of the deck! You can’t just expect to [card]Day of Judgment[/card] an early rush of zeroes and ones and have that carry the day, not when [card]Shrine of Loyal Legions[/card], [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] and [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] pay off patience so well.

The creature package I like to use doesn’t even feature all artifacts as the Standard Steel decks preferred, without [card]Steel Overseer[/card] I find that you can shave a few slots and still have a reliable beatdown machine. Once again it comes back to pure speed and opening yourself up to bigger blowouts or keeping the possibility of using cards like [card]Blade Splicer[/card] and [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] open. Even without those cards though, Tempered Steel and Shrine of Loyal Legions can give Steel a ton of inevitability on more aggressive control strategies. Here was the build I’ve currently adopted as a hybrid of the two listed.

[deck]4 Memnite
4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge
4 Phyrexian Revoker
4 Hero of Bladehold
4 Tempered Steel
2 Dismember
4 Dispatch
4 Glint Hawk Idol
3 Shrine of Loyal Legions
2 Mox Opal
17 Plains
4 Inkmoth Nexus
Sideboard:
2 Ghost Quarter
2 Gideon Jura
3 Indomitable Angel
4 Revoke Existence
4 Leonin Relic-Warder[/deck]

Most of this is fairly straight-forward as far as Steel goes and shouldn’t need any explanation. The slots that usually get a few raised eyebrows are [card]Phyrexian Revoker[/card] and [card]Hero of Bladehold[/card], both of which were pretty loose in the maindeck of Standard versions before. Revoker fills the dead space made by the creatures lost to rotation since there are a fair number of cards worth shutting down; [card]Birthing Pod[/card], planeswalkers, [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card] and so on. If the format boils down to actual creature wars then it won’t be the best choice, but as it stands Revoker is very good against everything else.

[card]Hero of Bladehold[/card] is a creature I’m not necessarily sold on, but is such a powerful single-card threat that she gets the benefit of the doubt. The concept of her is more important than the actual execution at the moment, you just benefit so much by having a non-artifact threat that can kill quickly. Having a threat that won’t be shut down by the same narrower set of answers the rest of the deck is helps a lot more than the dis-synergy with Tempered Steel. Other creatures that are worth trying are [card]Mirran Crusader[/card] and [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card]; you just want a three or four drop that can deal a lot of damage very quickly and isn’t hit by artifact removal. While extra forms of protection or evasion obvious help, raw power is what I tend to be looking for the since the main role is going to be as a secondary finisher on an empty board.

As for the sideboard I must be the only one who expects the first few weeks to look like a repeat of Pro Tour Nagoya with 15-20% of people playing Tempered Steel and many others wishing they had. I really don’t want to be behind in the mirror match and many of the sideboard cards serve dual roles against Birthing Pod or decks heavily reliant on spot removal like UB Control. Extra lands and [card]Gideon Jura[/card] was one of the few ways I found that could make an effective dent in both aggro mirrors and grind matches without being blown out by common sideboard cards, I’d actually like a third, and perhaps a [card]Leonin Relic-Warder[/card] could take leave for another [card]Gideon Jura[/card], who right now is the best planeswalker left in the format by a long shot. [card]Indomitable Archangel[/card] is one of the best weapons you have against Birthing Pod which aims to beat you by throwing copies of [card]Acidic Slime[/card] at you until the end of time.

As for specific matches I could try to explain a few, but right now there’s so much flux outside of Tempered Steel as to what constitutes a playable deck that it seems like a waste of time. Right now my current gauntlet is:

Mono Red
Tempered Steel
GW and Bant Pod
UW Hero Blade
UW Draw-Go
UB Draw-Go
UB Tezzeret

Tempered Steel tends to have a natural advantage over most of these decks, but with some work and an increase in maindeck artifact removal they can be made to have a fair shot. UW in particular has the tools to be good against Steel, but many builds I’ve seen are too in love with replicating Caw Blade. Packing a few narrow answers like [card]Divine Offering[/card] as useful early game spot removal against Steel and against Birthing Pod is often overlooked. Don’t be afraid to err on the side of too much removal, because you’ll be rewarded rather than punished a heck of a lot more often for the first couple of weeks.

Variants

Some people have e-mailed me and pointed me toward Steel decks running red for [card]Curse of Stalked Prey[/card] and [card]Galvanic Blast[/card] with the argument being that [card]Stalked Prey[/card] is a solid [card]Steel Overseer[/card] replacement and helps maintain the speed of the Standard iteration. I tried out [card]Curse of Stalked Prey[/card] just to see if turning most of my creatures into [card]Slith Firewalker[/card] was a reasonable facimily. Long story short, it was not. The main problem with comparing the two is the speed isn’t even close to the same level as one another.

The main problem with Curse is that every creature you play after it hits play has noticeable time lag before getting any benefit from the card. Active [card]Steel Overseer[/card] could put two +1/+1 counters onto your creatures before they attacked and a 3rd before the next swing. Curse requires two attack phases before you see any benefit translate to life off of your opponents. This is far too slow to be useful and frankly embarrassing if you get hit by a sweeper and need to rebuild your army from scratch. It also counts as one of the worst topdecks possible in a deck that prominently features [card]Memnite[/card] and [card]Signal Pest[/card], which is quite the feat! So unless other compelling reasons exist to run red in the deck, I wouldn’t bother with an awkward manabase for minimal gain.

Splashing blue isn’t the silliest thing in the world, but other than [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] what do you really gain? With both [card]Preordain[/card] and [card]Spell Pierce[/card] MIA there doesn’t seem to be a heck of a lot blue can offer the deck anymore. Maybe Geist is so good in Steel or there’s another option I’m missing that makes it worthwhile, otherwise stay far away.

I think that covers just about everything people have asked about Tempered Steel with the information we have. That’s about all I can say until results start rolling in and I have practical test opponents or refinements to make to Steel. Good luck to everyone playing some Standard this weekend and enjoy the fresh format!

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

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