On Deprive

If you haven’t yet heard, the following is a card rumored to be in Rise of the Eldrazi (unconfirmed; rarity unknown):

EDIT: Confirmed.

Initial thoughts:

What makes this better than Cancel?

1) You can play it on turn 2.
2) You can play it late-game effectively as “Counterspell.”

In the first example, playing it on turn 2, you’re now behind; yes, you traded with their 2- or 3-drop, but now on turn 3 you need another counter to deal with their 3- or 4-drop, which is likely better than whatever card they played on turn 2. So do you play ANOTHER Deprive (assuming you have it)?

Honestly, I don’t even think this is worth playing on turn 2.

Let’s say you don’t play it on turn 2, but you hit your first three land drops and then want to counter something. What’s better in this situation? Cancel or Deprive? Cancel, obviously. Deprive leaves you with 1 mana open which will likely go unused. In the meantime, now you’re set back a turn and you’ve likely wasted any advantage that Deprive provided you.

So, okay, late game then. This is where Deprive is at its strongest. But when is it really going to be that much better than Cancel? Really only when you’re returning something like Halimar Depths, as far as I can tell. It allows you to tap all but 2 land, unlike Cancel, but is that really such a huge deal?

For the moment, I’m going to predict that if Deprive sees play in Standard decks akin to UW Chapin Control, it’s going to be in numbers less than 4, as its early game drawback just seems like too much for a deck whose strengths lie in getting to Stage 3. However, I can see it being a possible staple in some sort of UG deck that can recover from the tempo loss using the myriad of mana accelerants available in Standard.

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The Other Sphinx

As I mentioned on Yo! MTG Taps!, I have been thinking quite a bit about the “other” Zendikar sphinx, Sphinx of Lost Truths. While I think this was the first sphinx to get any love (Gavin Verhey included it in a Sphinx Control list just after Zendikar’s release, and it was in a deck that made the top 8 of a Last Chance Qualifier for Pro Tour Austin), it seemed to quickly be overshadowed by its bigger untouchable brother, Sphinx of Jwar Isle.

True, it did see the light of day in a few Dredge lists at Pro Tour Austin, but I can’t help but think there’s great potential for this guy in Standard.

First, let’s take a look at Gavin’s deck:
Maindeck:

Artifacts
4 Courier’s Capsule

Creatures
3 Sphinx Of Lost Truths

Instants
4 Lightning Bolt
3 Negate
2 Terminate

Planeswalkers
3 Chandra Nalaar
4 Jace Beleren

Sorceries
3 Cruel Ultimatum
4 Pyroclasm
4 Wretched Banquet

Basic Lands
4 Island
5 Mountain
4 Swamp

Lands
4 Crumbling Necropolis
1 Dragonskull Summit
4 Drowned Catacomb
1 Magosi, The Waterveil
4 Scalding Tarn

Sideboard:
4 Countersquall
3 Essence Scatter
1 Negate
2 Terminate
2 Liliana Vess
2 Haunting Echoes
1 Magosi, The Waterveil

This was the list I originally planned on running when Zendikar first hit the stores. However, Richard Feldman presented such a great argument for his URW “Rembrandt” deck that I switched to his list before I even got a chance to try Gavin’s. After feeling like the Feldman list was lackluster, I switched to a Kyle Sanchez version of Izzet Control (UR), cutting the white for more mana consistency. Of course, as I stated a few weeks ago, that version seemed to be a bit deficient as well. I never felt like I had the right answers in my hand.

Last week I asked Gavin whether he felt his Sphinx Control deck was still a viable choice for Standard, and he pointed me to Patrick Chapin’s Wafo-Grixis build (it’s technically Guillaume Wafo-Tapa’s Grixis list, with a few modifications by Chapin).

While the list is from a StarCityGames Premium article (and I encourage everyone to sign up for SCG Premium, it’s well worth it), I am going to justify posting it here because I just found the list easily without even visiting the StarCity site (thanks Google!):

Wafo-Grixis (as modified by Patrick Chapin)
Maindeck:

Creatures
3 Sphinx Of Lost Truths

Instants
2 Countersquall
2 Essence Scatter
3 Flashfreeze
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Terminate

Planeswalkers
2 Sorin Markov

Sorceries
3 Cruel Ultimatum
4 Divination
3 Earthquake
4 Sign In Blood

Basic Lands
2 Island
2 Mountain
6 Swamp

Lands
4 Crumbling Necropolis
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Dragonskull Summit
4 Scalding Tarn

Sideboard:
1 Pithing Needle
1 Relic Of Progenitus
3 Malakir Bloodwitch
2 Siege-gang Commander
1 Sphinx Of Jwar Isle
2 Countersquall
1 Flashfreeze
1 Negate
2 Deathmark
1 Thought Hemorrhage

If you read Lloyd Frias’ tournament report, you might recall that this was the list that he used as the basis for his States-winning deck.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my own build of Cruel Control, which—after suggestions and playtesting—has slowly evolved to be quite similar to the lists above.

Here it is, Super Sphinx Bros.:
Maindeck:

Artifacts
3 Courier’s Capsule

Creatures
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
2 Sphinx Of Lost Truths

Instants
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Flashfreeze
2 Essence Scatter
2 Countersquall
4 Terminate
3 Double Negative

Sorceries
3 Cruel Ultimatum
2 Earthquake

Planeswalkers
3 Jace Beleren
1 Sorin Markov
1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Basic Lands
6 Island
3 Mountain
4 Swamp

Lands
2 Crumbling Necropolis
4 Dragonskull Summit
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Scalding Tarn

Sideboard:
4 Spreading Seas
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
1 Telemin Performance
2 Malakir Bloodwitch
2 Flashfreeze
2 Chandra Nalaar
1 Earthquake
2 Pithing Needle

As you might expect, the deck is constantly evolving. The most recent changes were cutting Sign in Blood for Courier’s Capsule, and shaving a Countersquall and a Double Negative to fit Sorin and Bolas. (These changes came after talking to Lloyd about his card choices on Yo! Ep 6). So far, so good. I’m liking Sorin and Bolas, but I haven’t played Capsule enough to notice a big difference between it and Sign in Blood.

On the Top8Magic podcast, Mike Flores mentioned that when he designed Naya Lightsaber, he made sure not to run any lands that didn’t at least have a good chance of coming into play untapped (ie., the M10 duals). The more I thought about this strategy, the more I wondered: Why couldn’t this work for a control deck? The resulting manabase I’ve come up with has only two lands that enter the battlefield tapped (Crumbling Necropolis). For me, this—along with running a sizable amount of instants—has worked WONDERS. Being able to interact in the early game has been crucial. By allowing me to have an impact before my big spells are online, this mana configuration forces my opponents to keep applying pressure in order to have any chance of winning, and helps set me up for the late game, where the deck shines. There is even the possibility of a turn 5 Sphinx of Lost Truths, turn 6 Sorin (drop them to 10, swing for 3), turn 7 Cruel Ultimatum + swing or ping with Sorin for the win. Obviously, with only 1 copy of Sorin in the deck, it’s not going to happen regularly, but the potential is there.

     

This deck just feels so much more powerful than the Rembrandt and Izzet versions. I no longer have to rely on attacking with Sphinxes to win games; I have Sphinxes, Planeswalkers, and oh, that’s right, Cruel Ultimatum. Before, I was playing my ‘walkers out of necessity, because there was a threat that needed to be answered. Chandra was there to kill a Baneslayer and then die to any Llanowar Elf that was in the mood for a tussle. Ajani Vengeant (while still awesome), was difficult to protect when my own life total was in danger. But in this deck, the ‘walkers are threats in and of themselves.

Now, just a few stories from tonight.

Iona, Shield of Emeria is REALLY frustrating to play against. My opponent was playing a GW Summoning Trap deck, which would ramp up into Summoning Trap or, more often, Iona herself. It seemed like every time I tapped out for something, he would have the Iona or the Trap. With so much mana, hardcasting either spell was not a problem. In one game, I tapped out for Nicol Bolas and stole his tapped Rhox Meditant (my other choice was Birds of Paradise). At the end of my turn he plays Summoning Trap and gets a Rhox Meditant. On his turn he hardcasts Iona (naming black) and then attacks with Meditant into my Bolas, putting him on 1 loyalty and leaving me unable to deal with Iona. In two separate games I managed to destroy his Iona, only to see another one hit the board on his subsequent turn. I kept wishing for Into the Roil (which I had just removed from the sideboard because I had yet to use it). It’s likely I’ll remove the Spreading Seas from the ‘board to make room, because so far it hasn’t impressed me.

Also, tonight I had the opportunity to play against the Jacerator (TurboFog) deck that’s been seeing a lot of play. In game one, he rolled me. I tried to put up a fight, but I just had too many dead cards against that strategy (Flashfreeze, Terminate). In game two, however, I won on turn 5. You see, I had noticed the 1 copy of Telemin Performance in Lloyd’s sideboard, and I thought it was a decent card to try out. I sided it in for this matchup expecting to steal a Sphinx of Jwar Isle, which I knew my opponent was running. But lucky for me, he had sided it out. On his turn 4 he tapped out for Font of Mythos and passed the turn; I untapped and played Telemin Performance, and that was game. He had zero creatures in his library. Very exciting. It’s rare that one single spell wins the game on its own in one turn. WOW.

     

In game 3, he sided in Quest for Ancient Secrets to deal with the possibility of another loss to Telemin Performance. We battled back and forth a bit, and in the end, I was able to come up with enough burn to end the game before he could put together his combo. Because I hadn’t played any creatures thus far in the match, he sided out his removal and most of his fogs. I got there with Sphinx of Lost Truths + 2x Lightning Bolt + Earthquake (and a few timely counterspells, including a Double Negative for his Negate when he tried to counter my game-winning Earthquake).

     

Overall, a really fun evening of Magic. For the first time since Zendikar’s release, I feel like I have a deck that both fits my play style and has cards that I enjoy playing. Here’s to hoping Worldwake has some goodies in store for us island-lovers.

On one final note, I just wanted to mention the upcoming Baltimore Open, hosted by GoneToPlaid Games. I won’t be able to make it as I’ll be out of town, but this looks like a great option for anyone who can attend. Here’s the info:

$1,000 Standard Tournament
Followed by
$1,000 Extended Tournament

Saturday, December 19th 2009 at the Sheraton Inn Harbor Hotel
In the Inner Harbor of Baltimore

Entry fee for each tournament is $25

Prize structure:
1st – $400
2nd – $200
3rd-4th – $100
5th-8th – $50
$1,000 purse is guaranteed, additional prizes will be awarded based on attendance.
Doors open at 9:00 a.m.
The Standard Tournament will start at 10:00 am
The Extended Tournament will start at 1:00 pm

For more information, visit BaltimoreMTG.com.

CURRENTLY READING: Jonny Magic & The Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas.

Affinity For Turning Lands Into Islands

First, the bad news: There was only ONE Island in the entire top 8 of Worlds this weekend. It was in a Bant deck piloted by Manuel Bucher, who was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

Now, the good news: I’d heard about this tech a couple of weeks ago, but it’s becoming more and more widespread. This weekend at Worlds, Gerry Thompson did a video deck tech about a Standard build he designed, which he dubbed “Spread ‘Em” after its primary strategy:

     

See, the thing about Jund (and many other popular Standard decks right now) is a not-quite-reliable manabase. This deck attacks that weakness, and seems to be having some success. As I write this, I’m watching live video of the team finals of Worlds. The Standard portion is a URW deck (not at all unlike my own current build) facing off against a Jund deck. Spreading Seas has entirely shut down the red mana sources of the Jund deck, slowing things down enough for the control player to stick an Ajani Vengeant and a Sphinx of Jwar Isle to win the game.

     

In a format with few Islands, Spreading Seas is essentially a cantripping land destruction spell. I absolutely love this strategy, and no doubt I’ll be trying it sometime this week.

Power vs Consistency

Magic the Gathering Links for this Week

As I posted a few days ago, the list I’ve been running lately is a UR control deck, which I adopted after reading an article by Kyle Sanchez. Previously I’d been running a URW control deck that was very similar but for the inclusion of white for cards such as Path to Exile and Ajani Vengeant. This particular list—based on Richard Feldman’s “Rembrandt”—required seven fetchlands (a dubious undertaking in such an aggressive metagame), and obviously the three-color manabase was not as consistent as a two-color would be. It’s this idea that brings me to today’s topic: Power vs Consistency. (Seasoned players will have to excuse me for a paragraph or two while I elaborate; scroll down a bit if you want to skip this part.)

As a general rule, cards with multiple colors in their mana costs tend to be more powerful than mono-colored cards with the same converted mana cost. See Thought Hemorrhage vs Cranial Extraction, or Lightning Helix vs Incinerate.

     

The manabase for a mono-colored deck is likely to be much more consistent than that of a two- or three-colored deck. How many times have you been playing a game where you drew plenty of lands, but not enough of the right color? It’s this trade-off that designers at Wizards have in mind when designing multicolor cards. They are willing to give you more “bang for your buck” if you are willing to take the risks implied with building a multicolored deck. This is also one of the reasons that players tend to like sets with a lot of multicolored cards: the cards are just more powerful.

Probably the main reason for the dominance of Five-Color Control decks over the Spring and Summer was the fact that—due to lands such as Reflecting Pool, Exotic Orchard, and the Vivid cycle—players were able to easily produce mana of any color they needed (prompting the use of cards like Cloudthresher, Cryptic Command, and Cruel Ultimatum together in the same deck). There was almost no trade-off, as manabases were so consistent that the usual drawback of a multicolor spell was simply nullified. (In fact, Wizards later stated that they’d made a mistake by printing these lands to be Standard-legal at the same time.)

     

For better or worse, the current Standard environment does not allow for such ridiculous manabases. Don’t get me wrong, there are some four- and five-color decks out there (see Mike Flores’ Black Baneslayer—which recently saw two berths in the top 8 of the StarCityGames Nashville $5K—and Yo! MTG Taps!’s own bigheadjoe has been having success with All-In Sphinx, a four-color control deck). It’s just that now, the trade-off is a bit more apparent. Often these types of decks can’t even play a spell before turn three or four, due to so many lands that enter the battlefield tapped. This gives the more aggressive strategies (such as Boros Bushwhacker) a chance to gain the upper hand before their opponent’s deck is even online.

Traditionally, I have been the type of player to choose consistency over power. Nothing bothers me more than the inability to cast my spells. This is pretty indicative of my general personality, as I’m not much of a risk-taker in my everyday life either. I’m a “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” kinda guy, which is partly why I enjoy control decks: they slow the game down enough to where I am able to have the answers I need in order to win the game.

On Friday morning (when we were supposed to be podcasting), bigheadjoe and I played a handful of games. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a run of inconsistency in my life. One way or another, I drew terrible hands in every game. Even when faced with threats for which answers were included in my deck, I never had that answer at the right time.

Just some of the carnage:

• An opener with 3x Double Negative and 1 land – a Terramorphic Expanse; a mulligan to six gave me 5 lands and a Chandra Nalaar.
• Being stuck on 5 lands with 3x Burst Lightning in my hand facing down a Baneslayer Angel. Only two of my lands were mountains.
• Two consecutive games with Junk Mana Ramp wherein I drew only Swamps, Plains, and Marsh Flats.

As you can imagine, it was extremely frustrating, especially after having promised myself that I wouldn’t scoop and would instead try to fight through any dire circumstances in which I found myself. Especially when playing the UR list, which was built with the intention of being a consistent deck.

So why, after all this inconsistency, am I actually considering a switch back to the URW version of the deck? Well, because of this:

     

WHAT A BEATING!!! I already can’t counter the damn thing, OR block it with a Sphinx, but with Oran-Rief, nothing short of a kicked Burst Lightning can even burn it away! (Even worse, the time I did manage to have a Burst Lightning for the 4/4 Stag, Joe had a Harm’s Way to prevent 2 of the damage and kill my Jace. Bad beats today, I’m tellin’ you!) [NOTE: I’ve since been informed that since I am the original source of the damage, it cannot be redirected to my Jace. See comments for more info.]

As you might realize, the newly popular Eldrazi Green deck runs this combo in multiples. Considering that two copies of Oran-Rief in play means that I can’t even clear the Stag with a Burst Lightning, and I’m in the unpleasant position of having no answer in my entire list, save Chandra Nalaar or a preemptive Goblin Ruinblaster for Oran-Rief. (And just to clarify, Joe wasn’t even running the Eldrazi Green list; his was just a GW beats deck he’d brewed up the other day, whose sole inclusion from Zendikar was Oran-Rief, the Vastwood.)

Path to Exile is the first answer that comes to mind for this, along with Ajani Vengeant to either keep the thing tapped or help kill it (or, of course, kill it outright if it wasn’t pumped with Oran-Rief). Then again, Harm’s Way can be a huge problem when relying on burn as your primary means of removal. Day of Judgment works too, of course, but I’m not sure it’s the correct answer for the rest of the format (it’s a bit slow, does little when facing a Sprouting Thrinax or Bloodghast, and on top of that it kills my Sphinxes).

This is an especially trying time for a control player. We’re getting hit from all sides, with cards like Blightning to destroy our hands, Bloodbraid Elf to exhaust our counters and removal, and Luminarch Ascension to exploit our long-game plans. It feels like there’s a control deck out there somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding it…