I usually start these articles by saying that I haven’t played much Magic lately but this time that would not be very true. After building 4-Color Emerge for the previous PT, I remained motivated to keep playing this magnificent game. At this point, my enjoyment is only really in the deck-building process. Once I have enough reps with a deck to be happy with the list, I lose interest. I don’t derive much joy from playing a bunch of matches with a deck that I’m not actively trying to analyze and improve. With this in mind, I turned my focus to Modern and spent a couple of weeks brewing—when I was happy there, I looked at Vintage. Fortunately, this satisfied me all the way up until a few weeks ago, when the spoilers were well and truly flowing.
With an account on the beta, I was ideally positioned to discover as much as I could about the format. Those who are familiar with the beta will know that almost everyone on it wants to try out the new cards and archetypes. They play untuned lists, and they play pretty poorly. Looking at your win percentage doesn’t tell you much about your deck. I played about 230 matches before the beta closed, and I tested a lot of decks.
I started out with R/G Beatdown and white-based aggro, and smashed my way through a lot of untuned combo decks built around various 4-mana artifacts. I like to play aggro at the very beginning of a format, because if your opponent isn’t doing anything impressive you can finish your match quickly and move on. If they are doing something impressive, you can pay attention.
The first janky deck that impressed me was Metalwork Colossus. It had some busted draws, seemed relatively consistent, and was really, really cool. I decided to give it a look. With the aid of Frank Karsten’s excellent articles on pilot lists, I had a shell to work from. I won enough initially to keep me interested, but there were a couple of problems that seemed insurmountable: Ceremonious Rejection and Elder Deep-Fiend. The deck also turned out to be undeniably inconsistent, so I thought I might try and build decks around these combo-destroying blue cards.
I think a deck is made up of two slightly overlapping but importantly different identities. A deck has idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses, and contextual ones. On an idiosyncratic level, a deck is a combination of the power of its cards in a pure sense and their internal synergies. When looking through this lens you are trying to discover how consistent a deck is, how well it curves out, and how quickly it can do 20 damage or its “thing.” When you don’t know what a format will look like and when your opponents are generally playing garbage, this is your primary tool for deck building.
The contextual lens is your interpretation of the format, or metagame, in which the deck will be played. I think this dominates a lot of deck building and I’m not sure this is necessarily appropriate. I think people build too much for a metagame—they have a good plan for a set number of decks but aren’t actually playing something impressive, just something that is well placed. This is very dangerous going into a PT where a lot of the information about the metagame is hidden.
Actually, it’s pretty dangerous in general. I remember when I was playing PTQs. I would look at a deck through its matchups, but one of those listed matchups was random stuff. Every format has decks built around strategies that differ from the ones you have considered and while you can’t beat them all, having a deck with a strong identity or great cards is a good way to prepare for this set of decks. That being said, I wanted to have some sense of what people might play as this is a determining factor in whether cards are good. I started with the best cards that didn’t rotate: Spell Queller, Liliana, the Last Hope, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Kozilek’s Return, Elder Deep-Fiend, Emrakul, The Promised End, and Fevered Visions.
Segue over: I wanted to play Elder Deep-Fiend and sideboard Ceremonious Rejection, but I couldn’t find a good shell. R/U/G decks felt clunky, and Haunted Dead–Prized Amalgam had lost a lot so I thought I would just jam Deep-Fiend in my white aggro deck and see what it looked like.
The white aggro shell that I liked contained 20 cards:
- 4 Toolcraft Exemplar
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Smuggler’s Copter
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Selfless Spirit
12 artifacts for Exemplar felt a little low on an intuitive level, but when I checked the math it was 89% to have one in your first 9 cards, which was a number I should be happy with. When all the other artifacts under-performed, I decided 12 would do. To make this deck able to accommodate Elder Deep-Fiend, I put in the previous format all-stars Reflector Mage and Spell Queller. I tried out Filigree Familiar, but it wasn’t doing what I wanted.
The sideboard had Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Archangel Avacyn, and they came in for Elder Deep-Fiend a lot. In fact, the Fiend really under-performed. You were aggressive enough and with Spell Queller and sideboard counterspells you were able to handily dispatch combo decks—Reflector Mage was the only creature that curved well into Fiend and double-blue put a lot of pressure on the mana base. I trimmed Fiend after Fiend until they were all gone. Then I trimmed some Ceremonious Rejections. Fast forward 50+ matches and an SCG Open to give me some sort of metagame to address, and I had this list:
What I had was an aggro deck that went a little bigger and interacted a lot. While the blue 3-drops are both a lot worse in this format than the last, they are still powerful tempo cards that punish an opponent that stumbles or anyone playing a slower deck. You can kill quickly but also grind well. At this point, no one is surprised that Smuggler’s Copter is great, but I really like it in a deck that has powerful plays at numerous mana costs. You need to play 24 lands to allow you to play so many 5-drops (and more post-board), but in general, the deck functions very well on 3 lands. Copter smooths the way to turn-5 Avacyn while having a lot of gas.
The mana base was challenging to build. Your color requirements aren’t too onerous—white always, blue on turn 3, double-white on turn 4, and black by turn 6. I started with 4 Aether Hub, but they were awful if you ever had to tap it for white. It would only animate Shambling Vent or bring back Scrounger once. The worst part though was how badly it played with the U/W duals. Once I cut them I had to try and work out just how much I could push the mana base toward untapped lands. Both Concealed Courtyard and Port Town were fantastic. Port Town meant a lot of basics though, and I wanted some more duals. I liked Shambling Vents and was playing 4 until after the SCG Open when the meta turned out more aggressive. All in all, I’m very happy with the current mana base. The colors generally work and while you can’t always animate the Vents, I think that’s okay. You don’t have too many clunky draws and this is vital given how aggressive your cards are.
Some of the main deck choices are a little tricky. I feel like these are the cards I want to play, but I’m unsure on the numbers of Spell Queller, Reflector Mage, and Toolcraft Exemplar. Toolcraft was a 4-of all the way through my pre-PT testing but the feedback I was receiving from the teams was that it was just bad. When I tried cutting them I found the deck far less impressive. A lot of your cards are a lot more powerful when you are the one asking questions. I accepted that the card was a little underwhelming and would be sided out a lot, but I really wasn’t impressed by Rattlechains, which seemed like the popular alternative. The 4-3 split on 3-drops has gone each way numerous times. Both cards get trimmed in various matchups but they really are the tempo engine of the deck. If your metagame is more midrange and aggro and less control and combo, then I would suggest changing to 4-3 the other way.
Leading up to the PT, quite a few teams had my list but they weren’t as excited about it as I was. The SCG Open was so aggressive and they were concerned about how a U/W Tempo deck could fair in an aggressive field. Scrapheap Scrounger and Toolcraft Exemplar don’t even pretend to play defense and both Spell Queller and Reflector Mage are far from their best against cheap threats, removal, and Vehicles. I was comfortable about my ability to transform into a control deck against the aggressive strategies, and game 1s on the play had been favorable.
The main reason I thought this would be a great PT deck was because I didn’t buy the expectation that lots of people would play aggro. This is for a couple of reasons: The first had to do with what I mentioned earlier about the danger of metagaming. The format is so new and I didn’t know what to expect from the PT, but I was thinking there would probably be a lot of decks that weren’t on the radar. The second reason is that PTs never have that much aggro. PT teams and players generally don’t like playing aggro, or at least don’t think they have to. When aggro is dominant, teams usually find ways to play midrange or something tuned to beat aggro rather than play the dominant deck.
I was disappointed that no one chose to play my deck but eager to see if it would have been well placed in the Pro Tour meta. The sideboard in the list above is not the one I had before the PT because I didn’t think giving you a pre-PT list would be of much value, but it hasn’t changed much.
Essentially in each post-board game you are either a fish deck (cheap threats and permission) or a midrange control deck. Between these two options, you have a powerful strategy against most things an opponent can bring to the table.
R/W Vehicles and B/R Aggro
This is how you transform into control. The plan is to play defense and set up a board where your 4- and 5-drops can dominate the game. Both Spell Queller and Scrounger can be okay if you don’t draw too many. Scrounger provides pressure, is a good driver, and grinds well, while Queller can be a great tempo play or blowout, but neither are amazing. I’ve tried keeping in two of one, or two of the other and don’t know which is better, so I’m hedging.
There is a lot going on in this matchup. Your cards match up really well against most of their deck but some of their cards are very high impact. You have draws that can be vulnerable to Liliana and a delirious Ishkanah is always a huge problem. This leads to some interesting choices when sideboarding. Your best plan against Ishkanah is Avacyn + Selfless Spirit but Spirit is really bad against Liliana and Ishkanah on its own. This is complicated further by siding in Fumigate, which is especially absurd with Selfless Spirit. In the end, I decided to take them out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is worse than leaving them in. Spell Shrivel really shines, especially since people are so excited to jam a 5-drop into Spell Queller mana. In general, the matchup can be tricky to play and you need to constantly know who the beatdown is and how likely that is to change.
This matchup is good. Scary, but good. Generally, you kill some key things while racing. This matchup is the reason why you play Blessed Alliance over Immolating Glare. Immolating Glare is a bit better against Copter deck that have key creatures and might, but not all that often, attack with multiple creatures including one you really want to kill. R/G Energy has Blossoming Defenses and this makes Blessed Alliance far superior—and often the difference between winning and a messy trampled death.
This is the deck’s bread-and-butter matchup, I’ve played it dozens of times and haven’t lost yet. They have one key card and you have 11 ways to counter it. You are able to commit to the board and keep counters up on all the turns they might be able to play Marvel.
This is really tricky. I don’t know what to take out and what the plan should be. Ideally, you want to counter all the things that cost 3 or more while beating down, but they bring in removal and sometimes Thought-Knot Seers. You might need to fight a midrange game. Selfless Spirit has been the weakest card as they don’t usually have much mass removal and it plays poorly against Glint-Nest Crane. If they do have sweepers and fewer threats, I would consider playing some over Reflector Mages. Gideon gets trimmed due to his sorcery-speed restriction and playing so poorly against Skysovereign, which is the scariest card and you rarely beat it if it gets to swing.
You may have to adjust if they have a lot of threats but for the most part you want to trim some number of anti-creature cards for counterspells. I have found these matchups very favorable although complicated to play. The game plan is to create board states that ask tricky questions and then interact with the answers. I think the control matchup is generally favorable enough that you don’t need to expose yourself too heavily to cards that might cause blowouts like Gearhulks and Wraths.
This deck reminds me of Faeries from many Standards ago. If you like tempo decks and high card quality—I would strongly suggest you take this for a spin.