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In Development – Swords Down, Angels Up

Are all our new problems actually new?

Around work, our second step in tackling a problem – the first being to define the problem – is to ask if we’ve dealt with anything like it before.

For my software developer colleagues, this is a very little question. Is there code that they can simply copy and paste from somewhere else that will get the job done? There’s no point in redoing work someone already spent the time on.

For most of my work, it’s a little less literal, a little more conceptual. Does this kind of thing already exist in nature? Is there a plausible mechanism for an enzyme to carry out this chemical reaction?

In Magic, we might find ourselves asking, “Has anyone ever had to kill off some Squadron Hawks before?”

Well, not exactly, but a piece of Magic history comes close, and applications of some lessons learned from it helped shape my deck this week.

The main enemy

Although the true composition of “the metagame” is a topic for another column, we know anecdotally that if we’re going to crack the top eight of any reasonably large event we’re going to have to kill our way through some number of Squadron Hawks, with or without associated equipment. Backup players include Boros decks that also feature Stoneforge Mystic and pals, with a big helping of Valakut, R/U/G Jace builds, and U/B Control.

If that last one seems wrong to you, then you’re probably an American like me who paid attention to what went on in Los Angeles last weekend but totally missed Grand Prix Barcelona. Check out those results to see a readout of a metagame quit different from what’s been going on Stateside.

However, if you’re in the States or online, you probably spend a lot of your time battling some variation of Caw-X.

Dorks with swords

Check out Gerry T’s semifinalist list from the Los Angeles Open:

U/W/B Caw-Blade

 

Before sideboarding, the deck’s creature complement is just Hawks, Mystics, and Tar Pits, with a side helping of Gideon Jura. Setting aside Jura for the moment, that’s a startlingly sad set of creatures to take home victory…Flying Men and Squires.

Of course, this highlights that it’s really all about slapping a Sword on one of those little dorks and going to town. As someone once said about watching Steven Seagal movies – “It’s not whether he’s going to break out the pool cue, it’s when.”

Which makes it a little surprising that we’re still seeing such a paucity of main deck hate aimed at artifacts or equipment.

Bring a friend

A few paragraphs ago, I said “setting aside Jura.” That’s a pretty big set-aside, and it highlights the fact that the deck is not so much a “little dorks with equipment” list as it is a “planeswalkers and their defensive perimeter” list. As Gerry has said, the deck leads its attack with little dorks with gear, but then follows up with a series of powerful spells, overwhelming the opponent.

This helps point toward why we don’t want to put too much weight on attacking Caw-Blade decks purely by attacking their equipment. If you spend all your effort nailing their first and second copies of the Sword of Deploying Threats, then when they drop [card]Gideon Jura[/card] you’re just dead in the water.

So, we’re looking at an opposing deck whose lines of attack include little attrition dorks, powerful equipment, and permanents with potentially game-dominating effects.

How do we deal with that?

So far, the tools of choice have been Sparkmages, discard spells, and additional spot removal. But there are other options.

Beating down like it’s 2005

Every so often it strikes me as exceptionally odd that events that took place during my big Magic vacation feel like “ancient history.” Worlds 2005 feels like a long time ago…except it actually happened right after I left graduate school – and really, it was just six years ago.

I’m guessing if you’re sixteen, six years ago feels like a long time.

It’s no coincidence that I’m pointing back to Worlds 2005, though. It has a lot of lessons to teach us about taking down the Caw-Blade matchup.

Jitte, Glare, and the City-Tree

The Standard of Worlds 2005 had a surprising number of features in common with our current Standard environment. It was Kamigawa-Ravnica Standard (albeit not with the full Ravnica block card pool to work with), and so it had that most underpriced of equipment options, Umezawa’s Jitte.

Worlds, specifically, had a break-out deck that might remind us, threat-wise, of modern Caw-Blade. Here’s the Ghazi-Glare list that Tomohiro Kaji piloted to a perfect day one record and then again in the top eight:

Ghazi-Glare

If you’re unfamiliar with the cards, the ones to mouse over and read are Glare of Subdual, Umezawa’s Jitte, Selesnya Guildemage, and Vitu-Ghazi, the City Tree.

The Ghazi-Glare deck was essentially a beatdown build tooled out with two major elements.

First, the most obnoxious equipment of all time, Umezawa’s Jitte. Jitte took the win-more feel of our two Scars block swords and combined them with the versatility of a planeswalker. In fact, Jitte often played out like a sort of parasitic planeswalker, building up “loyalty” counters and using them to power its various abilities – as long as you had a creature to slap it on. With no Mysics to hunt up Jitte, the deck simply played four of them, because it was that important.

Second, the deck had its eponymous engine, the combination of Vitu-Ghazi (and those Guildmages) and [card]Glare of Subdual[/card]. The combination of tokens and Glare of Subdual made for the ever-increasing ability to negate your opponent’s entire team and then just stroll over, Jitte in hand, and beat them up.

Needling and Sparking

The Ghazi-Glare-wielding contingent at World was so convinced of the dominance of their deck that they were actually pretty concerned about how to best take down the mirror match. If you take another look at Kaji’s main list, you’ll see that his main deck features no less than five solution cards that are essentially there for the mirror.

First, we have Pithing Needle, a cheap and flexible solution that can address literally every part of the Ghazi-Glare game plan, shutting down token production, all Glaring, and those Jittes. You’d imagine it feels a little weird using Pithing Needle to shut down elements of your own deck…except if the opponent has Glare of Subdual out and you don’t, you’re not long for this world, so you might as well.

Second, we have Seed Spark, a card that rather pleasingly attacks a major portion of the opponent’s game plan (nailing Jittes and Glares) while enabling your own (more tokens to fuel your Glare or carry a Jitte).

Now, this was for the mirror, so a lot of these exciting choices end up being absorbed into the coin-flip feel of watching two very good players use essentially the same deck against each other. But the ideas apply remarkably well to attacking Caw-Blade (and other) decks in current Standard.

So let’s apply them.

I’ll see your 1/1 and raise you a 5/5

The build I ended up with after applying these “lessons learned” from Ghazi-Glare went through many iterations before coincidentally ending up being G/W. For a long time it lived in Naya colors, but the benefits of access to Sparkmages and some other red cards were outweighed by the simple loss of room for cards that, at least in my hands, peform better in Standard right now.

Here’s the list:

W/G Slayers

 

Bigger beaters, more disruption

The core plan for this deck can be summarized like so:

“Play early attrition and disruption, then accelerate into bigger beaters for the win.”

Lest that sound too generic, “bigger beaters” means “bigger than a Squadron Hawk carrying a Sword.” Note that this doesn’t quite apply to those Vengevines, as a Sworded Hawk can pretty much kill an infinite number of Vengevines. However, when we level up to Baneslayers and Gideons, it really is the case that even an unequipped Angel or Gideon will crush a pesky 1/1 wielding a blade.

Thus, four Baneslayer Angels and three Gideon Juras in the maindeck.

The flow of the game

Your curve starts at two mana, with fifteen cards at that step, all of them creatures. Ideal openings include a Fauna Shaman, a Lotus Cobra, or a Squadron Hawk into more Hawks, overflowing Vengevines from your hand. Following this initial onboard presence, you have a couple of options.

If the opponent is not generating any notable resistance, you want to ride the acceleration from Lotus Cobra into a Baneslayer Angel, or you want to use Fauna Shaman to get the Vengevine engine or a Sword-equipped beater online.

If the opponent is not a goldfish (or a Valakut deck), then you’re likely going to have to deal with whatever they’re playing. This means either using Fauna Shaman to tutor up a solution of grabbing one directly via Green Sun’s Zenith. The presence of Zenith in the deck means we have a virtual eight copies of Fauna Shaman, and a virtual five copies of any other green silver bullet we might choose to play.

With either the beatdown or disruption plan established around 2-3 mana, we proceed to the 4-mana mark where Vengevines and Garruks lead the assault. This places a significant burden on the opponent’s defenses before the top end of the curve finally joins in, sealing the deal.

The upside

This deck wins attrition wars and has a powerful suite of trump cards, all while packing in access to disruption that can keep your major opposition under wraps.

In many ways we’re taking the lessons of Caw-Blade decks and simply enhancing them. Instead of just a crew of early attrition dorks and some gear, we have powerful engine cards added to that same suite of attrition dorks and gear. We then trump those cards with a full crew of powerful four- and five-drops, giving us an attack force that a typical Caw-Blade deck can’t match.

The downside

In exchange for playing our bigger, better beaters, we suffer from the sin of being intrinsically weak against Valakut and other “ramp into combo” decks such as Genesis Wave. Your game one plan against modern Valakut is to stick as many attackers as quickly as possible – ideally, we’d want a Baneslayer so that we’re pushing our life total up and out of their reach as we beat them down.

But fundamentally, we’re trying to race combo with a deck that has a lot of power but doesn’t dart off the starting line. We have almost no disruption, relying on Tectonic Edge to try and slow the opponent down, or deny them a full Valakut kill. Access to Sword of Feast and Famine helps here, but it’s still a dodgy endeavor, especially when Valakut has its own Zeniths to give it a virtual eight copies of Primeval Titan.

That said, the deck is fast enough that with the inclusion of added disruption in the sideboard to give you a reasonable likelihood of winning matches against the angry mountain and friends.

Neither here nor there, but awfully cool

I’m clearly still a Fauna Shaman fan.

Now that Green Sun’s Zenith lets me play a virtual eight, I’m an even bigger fan.

However, the Zenith-Shaman combo means that this deck can, potentially, serve as a skeleton for your favorite (or simply necessary) metagame adjustments. The maindeck I’ve presented is tailored for enemy equipment and planeswalkers, but you can easily reconfigure it as you like. Swap in Slimes for Revokers, or have a single copy of Linvala queued up and ready to go.

The obvious adjustment is more Mystics. Pop out any two creatures you don’t care about, pop in a Stoneforge and a piece of equipment – maybe a second Sword. The essential framework that lets the deck work in this plug-n-play manner allows a lot of change – and with eight different tutors, even a single-card change can have a striking impact.

Bigger, faster, cleverer

This is an interesting time of dynamic equilibrium in the Standard metagame. Even if one deck seems like the “dominant” list, a quick glance around the world shows that a surprisingly wide variety of decks can perform admirably. We have a resurgence of U/B Control in Europe, but in Los Angeles last weekend U/B meant Skithiryx and Necropedes.

For me, it’s time to search my deck like crazy, recur creature from the graveyard, and lay the smackdown with giant angels.

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magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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