We forget things all the time.
Earlier this week, I was putting together an index of all my In Development columns to date. Given how often I refer back to prior columns, this really is something I should have been doing as I went along.
In putting together my index, I ran across this article about putting together a reference library of deck lists for a PTQ season. One of the reasons I cited in that article for referring not just to the metagame of the moment but also to the past was “cool ideas.”
Another way to express this might be “lost ideas.”
I recently found myself needing to evaluate microbial growth on previously untested nutrients. After some literature review, I ended up adapting a method first developed in the late 60s. I suppose I could have invented a new method myself…but why?
Today I’m going to talk about forgetting cards and concepts, even within the span of a few months, or a simple format rotation. I’m also going to address the idea of using the right (or wrong) tools for the job, and why we want to remember to make plays that may not fit the mold.
I’m going to lace this all together with my latest deck featuring what may well be my favorite creature of all time, Fauna Shaman.
Trying to race ramp
Around the beginning of last week, while I was writing about tilt, I was thinking about the failings of my recent deck designs were doing “okay,” but still struggled against the advancing state of ramp decks. I was happy with how these decks dealt with UGR Jace builds – which is a good thing to be competent against – but was annoyed by how often a ramp deck would just randomly stomp them.
I burned most of the week trying various approaches to this problem, in a journey that, on reflection, is one of using the wrong tools for the job.
Plagued by Pinnacles and Eyes
So, why were ramp decks doing such a number on my Fauna Shaman builds? Essentially, the problem in facing ramp is that if you don’t seal the deal in time, the deck will churn out a land that kills your dudes, or creature that locks down the board, and before you can work around that issue, the ramp deck kills you.
If you refer back to the idea of lines of attack, you can see that these unrelenting, mid-to-late-game effects neutralize, quite effectively, a Fauna Shaman deck’s primary game-winning line of attack. No creatures, no kill via creatures. Clogged board, no kill via creatures. In the past, I tried to solve this second issue with Sword of Body and Mind, which lets at least one of your creatures waltz right by all those plant tokens …
…but the problem is that in addition to the “clog the board” line of attack, Valakut has a “combo kill” line of attack, either via Valakut itself or by suddenly cranking up the power on those plant tokens and killing you.
Eldrazi decks similarly have a sort of relentless march in the late game, with a “kill you with Eldrazi” line of attack that, appropriate to the flavor of the beings involved, refuses to die. They can just keep churning out giant monsters, and basically no deck in Standard right now has an endless supply of appropriate solutions to deal with them.
Deceptively incorrect tools
In addressing this matchup, I tried to keep the idea of lines of attack in mind. I believed that my options included:
- Bypassing their board-clogging cards
- Knocking back their tempo
For the first issue, I still had some faith in Sword of Body and Mind – and as it happens, I still have faith in it, but more on that below. Other than that, I figured my main tool would be some form of removal that could actually deal with their biggest on-board problems, including such hits as Primeval Titan, Avenger of Zendikar, and Ulamog, the Infinite Annoyance. Recent results added to this list Abyssal Persecutor, the new “it girl” of U/B Control decks everywhere.
It was those last two, Ulamog and Abyssal, that pushed me away from U/B/G Fauna Shaman decks. The U/B/G color combination has a lot to recommend it for Fauna Shaman. Even if you don’t feel like running the Ooze plan, it gives you access to Mana Leak, Jace, Creeping Tar Pit, Trinket Mage (and his zero-mana, 1/1 Pokemon), Frost Titan, and, of course, Doom Blade. It’s a shame that Doom Blade can’t deal with Ulamog or Abyssal Persecutor – and, in fairness, it’s also kind of poor against Wurmcoil Engine, which appears in many ramp decks of both persuasions.
Instead, I found myself in white based on the fact that Journey to Nowhere can deal with these issues, which seemed like a fair trade for giving up the ability to hit creature lands and to stop hasty critters.
In terms of knocking back tempo, I tried a combination of cards including Silence, Acidic Slime, and Tectonic Edge. To accommodate that last one, as well as to try and win on tempo by simply having a more reliable mana base, I initially tried a G/W Fauna Shaman deck. Here’s one example build I tested:
Not-quite-tempo Shaman (not recommended)
This deck features all three proposed tempo killers in one place.
It also crashed and burned terribly. So what went wrong? Why were these potentially tempting tools so off the mark?
Does your plan have a plan B?
In considering cards for a specific matchup, it’s tempting to do what I caught myself doing last week. We grab a bunch of cards that directly address our issue, and we don’t consider how they integrate into our game plan as a whole, or how they function if they don’t get a chance to serve their proposed purpose.
Silence is the best example here – and the card that you probably called out as terrible when I suggested it above (note – if you said that, you’re right). Silence is a semi-Time Walk, in that if you fire it off during your ramp opponent’s second through fourth turns, it constrains them to their land drop. Unfortunately, this is pretty much all it does. It makes them (part of) a turn slower. If you find that you are no longer in a position where it is useful to put a hiccup into your opponent’s spell progression, Silence is just terrible. It has no backup purpose.
More subtly, Tectonic Edge was also bad. It’s tempting to kill a Valakut or an Eye of Ugin, but other than potentially staving off death for a turn in that manner, it doesn’t do much else to advance your position.
Finally, Acidic Slime was a disappointment. In fact, it was thinking about Acidic Slime that put me back on track to identifying correct solutions to the Shaman versus Ramp problem.
I had two key thoughts that came out of staring at a poor, lonely Acidic Slime, sitting alone on the battlefield, its owner dead to Valakut triggers off of a Primeval Titan.
This was the first:
“I am running a five-mana 2/2 against their six-mana 6/6.”
If you say it that way, the problem becomes clear. If my “keep them off tempo” plan A fails, my plan B is a 2/2 with death touch. In contrast, if their “kill them with Valakut or an Eldrazi” plan A fails, they’re left with a 6/6 trample creature as their plan B.
My plan B is a ten-turn clock, theirs is probably three, if I’ve used any fetches.
This was the second:
“Hm. Six-mana 6/6. Five-mana 5/5. Oh.”
Fauna Angels for the win
So, all this rumination about Fauna Shaman decks wasn’t idle – I wanted to pilot an improved Shaman deck at last Saturday’s ChannelFireball.com Winter Series $1K. About a day before the tournament I had my Slime epiphany and realized that if I was going to spend mana, there were better ways to do it.
This idea carried me pretty far.
Spending mana for value
On realizing that I was, fundamentally, fighting a six-mana 6/6 with a gimpy little two-mana 2/2, I had two follow-up ideas in short order.
I previewed the first already. If I’m already thinking about being (at least) one turn faster, why not run a five-mana 5/5 that helps negate other aspects of their line of attack. We haven’t seen her performing outside of U/W Control decks for a while, but consider her resume of relevant skills:
Why fool around with 2/2s that occasionally get the job done when you can run out the multirole terror that is Baneslayer Angel?
This choice was bolstered – as all tournament deck choices should be – by my assessment that the tournament was likely to feature a relatively large proportion of fast aggro decks, comprising Mono-Red Aggro, Boros, and Quest Aggro. Against those, Baneslayer would be an amazing – and unexpected – house.
The second idea can be phrased as follows:
“Why pay five mana to stall their 6/6 when two mana will stop it?”
Ah, Mana Leak. I wasn’t playing it for most of last week – by necessity, as I was running G/W. But on accepting that the Slime plan was foolishness, I realized that Mana Leak represented the most mana-efficient way possible for me to not have to deal with things like Primeval Titan and Avenger of Zendikar. Sure, there’s always a risk of Summoning Trap…but honestly, are you going to let them have their giant monster instead of forcing them to go to the roulette wheel and possibly luck into one?
Remember the discussion about knowing your likelihoods in last week’s article. They have some chance of Trapping into a nasty threat – let’s sat it’s 50%, to make up a number. Would you rationally let them have the nasty threat they’re trying to cast 100% of the time out of fear of that 50%?
Of course not. That’s silly. So run those Mana Leaks and enjoy trading two of your mana for six, seven, or even more of their mana.
So, with Leaks and Baneslayers ready to go, I hit up the $1K.
Fauna Angels stomping around
Here’s the deck I brought to the tournament:
Fauna Angels v1 (no longer recommended, but it rocked)
I’m not going to go into detail about the concepts behind this list, as I’m suggesting a revised version later on. However, I do have a few quick comments.
First, even though we’re back in blue, I eschewed Trinket Mage. In testing last week, the Mage was more often chaff than wheat. I didn’t appreciate having Memnite wasting space in the deck, and the other tutorables were underwhelming in the relevant matchups.
In addition to Baneslayer Angel, I added in another five-mana spell that’s been exiled to U/W Control as of late. Gideon Jura seemed like a versatile inclusion against creature-based aggro, being both removal and a personal bodyguard.
Finally, that Marsh Flats was an Arid Mesa right up until the morning of the tournament. In fact, the decklist on my phone still said “Arid Mesa” as I was scribbling “Marsh Flats” on my reg sheet. I switched it because the two lands send, in context, very different messages. Arid Mesa says, “I am in Bant. Here are the lands that power my Lotus Cobras.” Marsh Flats, when coupled with Verdant Catacombs, says, “I’m probably just Bant, but with all my off-color fetches grabbing black, I just might be running some wacky Memoricide or Ob Nixilis plan out of the sideboard. Just so you know.” It’s subtle and typically won’t matter, but some people will notice this kind of thing, so I like to keep it in mind.
How it ran
My metagame guess was correct, and I played a number of aggro decks, including the Mono-Red Aggro build that finally burned me out in the semifinals. In all except that last case, the Baneslayers were stellar.
After a couple months of writers everywhere talking about how Baneslayer no longer does the job, and a metagame featuring decks that mostly don’t play well with her, it’s amazing how much of a kick in the teeth it is for your aggro opponent when you drop one in game one.
I was basically never unhappy to see her, and often really pleased. My go-to play in many games was to use Fauna Shaman’s first activation to grab a Squadron Hawk (and friends), and then start queening my Hawks into Baneslayers on subsequent turns.
As she continued to win me games, I realized just how much I’d fallen prey to the a bit of collective amnesia surrounding Baneslayer. Sure, she’s not the right choice for the majority of contemporary archetypes, but that doesn’t make her bad.
That said, she still doesn’t live through a Destructive Force, which is how I found myself with no lands or creatures on the battlefield facing down a long Wurmcoil Engine in the first game of the day. Naturally, I lost that one (but I won the next two to take the match).
Mana Leak also performed pretty much as planned, stopping key spells to give me the space to win or to thoroughly disrupt my opponent’s game plan.
On the other hand, I actually didn’t play against any ramp decks. Subsequent testing showed that things still needed to change to give me an improved game against ramp.
Notice how I said “things” and not “cards.” Sometimes, what needs to change isn’t the deck, but how we pilot it. With that in mind, I wanted to discuss three interesting play situations from the tournament.
Curious plays for the Shaman and friends
It’s easy – really, really easy – to fall into a default pattern of play. We have tools to try and break this up, like maintaining our OODA loop and taking time to plan, but the habit is nonetheless there. Play Fauna Shaman, tutor for Vengevine, ditch Vengevine, recur Vengevine, profit…except maybe not.
The best bird in the world
Game one of round one saw me facing down that uncontested Wurmcoil. In game two, I outran my opponent with Baneslayer and Vengevines. In game three, it looked like the same thing was going to happen, which prompted him to fire off a panic Destructive Force that left a single Raging Ravine (his) and nothing else on the battlefield.
But when he cast it, I had an active, untapped Fauna Shaman and one random creature in hand. So what to do?
What would you do? I don’t know exactly what was left in my deck, so go ahead and assume you have access to everything.
I mulled it over briefly as the Force hung there on the stack. I don’t know what the default play would be there, but I knew it had nothing to do with Vengevines or Squadron Hawks (I had not yet fetched my Hawks).
I pitched the creature in hand and grabbed a Birds of Paradise. My logic here was that the game would go to whoever recovered first…and if I topdecked a green mana source, I’d gain massive advantage by having an extra mana producer ready to go.
As it happened, my next card was Stirring Wildwood, and I was in business. I spent the rest of the game Mana Leaking his Preordain and Flashfreezing his Explore while I beat him to death with a Lotus Cobra.
Persist with kicker
In the aggro matchups, my Squadron Hawks frequently played the role of “repeat chump blocker,” rather than “Fauna Shaman fuel.”
Oddly enough, I actually felt a little bit bad doing this, as if I must be doing something wrong. But against MRA or Quest Aggro, for example, I was perfectly happy to invest one (initial) card and 1W per turn to not get hit repeatedly in the face while I set up for Baneslayers and Baloths.
Go for the Sunblast
In the quarterfinals, my second game against Quest Aggro saw my opponent getting Argentum Armor online while I had, yet again, a Fauna Shaman on the field. One of my Colonnades was the first target for the Armor, so I had to figure out what I wanted to search up based on that context.
The “safe” option would have been something I could actually cast on the three lands the first Armor swing had left me…like that same Squadron Hawk, to fuel further chumping and Fauna Shaman action until I could hit a Journey.
I could also search up Sunblast Angel. Because if I topdecked a fetch afterward (I had Lotus Cobra out) I’d wipe out his team.
I did, and I did. I think this was correct play, even though it was the uncomfortable one, as it gave me an option for an immediate win while not ceding too much of the ability to stall for time if I didn’t happen upon the fetch.
Upgrading me, upgrading the deck
I think improving the performance of any deck – any viable deck, at any rate – involves not only tuning the deck, but tuning your play of the deck as well. In this case, that meant adopting plays I hadn’t previously expected to use – like spending my Squadron Hawks to chump block and buy time. It also meant adjusting the cards to properly accommodate my matchups.
The updated list
Here’s the list as it stands:
Fauna Angels v2
First off, Garruk has left the building. Although he was pretty impressive against URG Jace builds, he doesn’t do a whole lot against ramp, and he isn’t super-effective against fast aggro, either. He’s powerful in isolation, but not in context, so he’s back to the sidelines.
Stoneforge Mystic has gone to the main deck, bringing her Sword with her. This lets all the little mana dorks and Squadron Hawks gear up to become more effective monsters. In addition, testing showed that even though Sword isn’t able to push through for the win the way I wanted it to, it is relevant against Valakut by dint of randomly milling away things like, say, Valakut.
The “big threat” count went up by two, with an additional Baneslayer Angel and a Wurmcoil Engine. They increase the deck’s raw offensive power – much more than the Garruks they replace – and Wurmcoil gives me an option that can trade with Titans and live through big sweeper effects.
I was thinking about Ghazi-Glare decks (more on that some other time) when it occurred to me that I might want a copy of Venser in the deck. Venser is effective in two roles. First, he can push through for the win in a way that Sword can’t. Second, he lets you reuse Acidic Slime, Sunblast Angel, and any number of Obstinate Baloths. Essentially, he’s an excellent finisher in certain matchups, at least for now.
There’s only room to touch on this briefly, but it turns out that some of the “updates” to this deck come from figuring out how best to play it against those annoying ramp opponents.
Against Eldrazi, do you Mana Leak their early spells and save Flashfreeze for later, or do you Flashfreeze their early spells (which are universally green) and save Mana Leak for the colorless monstrosities?
Simply practicing and tuning these decisions – often changing from what I’d assumed to be the correct play – has dramatically changed how these matchups work for me.
All those cards, all those plays
The take-home for me from the past two weeks has been twofold.
First, Standard has lots of cards. Good cards don’t become awful just because they aren’t being played right now. Especially if you’re interested in tuning or customizing your deck, you need to be able to remember that good cards live outside the decks that are being played right now.
Second, it isn’t all about the tech. Over the past week, I’ve been able to track and explore simple changes in the order in which I cast spells that chain out to lead to wins or losses in key matchups.
I know most of you aren’t as in love with Fauna Shaman as I am, but I hope the underlying ideas are as useful to you as they were to me. I spent all day last Saturday surprising people with a “forgotten” card.
How will you surprise your opponents this week?