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From Old to New

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Adrian Posoiu
Adrian Posoiu

About Adrian Posoiu

I've started playing Magic when I was 18 years old, around the time when Mirrodin reared its head in Standard. The jump to semi-competitive play came shortly thereafter, as I started grinding local events on a regular basis. I attended my first Grand Prix in Athens 2006 and made my Pro Tour debut in Nagoya 2011. Recently, I won the Romanian Nationals and am currently set on participating at the World Championship. For those interested in what goes on outside my realm of Magic influence: I'm currently studying for a Master’s degree in Astrophysics, as I find it one of the most interesting and rewarding branches of science at the moment.

From Old to New

With the current iteration of Standard winding down more and more, the community has shifted its attention to different matters, be it the everlasting allure of the eternal formats or the fresh breeze provided by the few Return to Ravnica spoilers so far. Under these premises, I suggest we take a look both at my latest progress regarding the Legacy decklists I talked about last month, as well as some key new cards that should have a strong impact after the fall rotation.

The Old

Let's pick up where the previous article left off. There, I provided a brief comparison between two variations of the Stoneblade archetype, namely the traditional approach and the more recent miracles list that took down an entire SCG Open event. Both of those strategies had several advantages going for them which made them frontrunners in specific matchups. Basically, the added mass removal suite and card filtering potential turned the Miracles Stoneblade list into a true nightmare for aggro matchups such as Goblins and Maverick, but also provided them with relatively dead cards when battling against Show and Tell or Storm decks. On the other hand, the more well-rounded setup that is indicative of the classic build makes the overall matchup percentages more even across the field. Thus, it was difficult to assess the viability of each list and give a clear cut verdict on which one is more appropriate in a vacuum, instead suggesting that the decision be reevaluated according to the expected field in any given tournament.

Soon after I involved myself in the testing process, I noticed that the miracles version had a very wide win percentage range across matchups, exceeding my theoretical expectations. After barely dropping a match to RUG Delver and Maverick, the rest of the gauntlet made short work of the deck. Basically, with a maindeck counterspell suite that stretches as far as eight cards, it's difficult to fight through the disruption that opposing combo decks are fielding. Reanimator and Storm pack several discard spells to make sure the coast is clear before pulling the trigger, while OmniShow has its own Force of Wills that they can use to blank one of your responses. Moreover, the grind that defines control mirrors in the format rarely favors you in the long run. Although Sensei's Divining Top does help mitigate the presence of less efficient cards at first, the sheer density of such spells in the maindeck makes it difficult to pull ahead past the midgame. With all the Brainstorms and shuffle effects involved, it's difficult to always hide the redundant removal and extra copies of Top in favor of more appropriate cards. To top it off, none of these can be pitched to Force of Will like a useless Spell Pierce can in the event of both players having enough lands. While not technically dead in these matchups, Terminus rarely accomplishes more than a Swords to Plowshares would, clearing the board of a single Vendilion Clique or Dark Confidant. With all the added setup required to make the sweeper effective, having access to seven removal spells when playing the mirror or against BUGstill makes you an underdog against their better selection of spells.

The traditional version gave off a better overall vibe and I was sold after running it through just a few games. Although the maindeck is not thoroughly equipped to deal with an onslaught of early threats, the list more than made up for it with a more uniform card selection for the matchups that did not involve the red zone. While I initially liked the idea of having some one-of silver bullets in a Brainstorm-powered deck, such as the Relic of Progenitus and Wrath of God, I found that I rarely wanted to dig for them even in those games where they were supposed to shine and that I would rather have a more consistent suite of answers at my disposal. Relic was a card I was quite fond of in theory, as it can considerably shrink opposing Nimble Mongooses and Tarmogoyfs, but the artifact does not provide a permanent solution and can only delay the beatdown and I look for a proper solution to the creatures. Given that I now had some free slots at my disposal, I toyed around with several cards that I thought would complement the list nicely. Specifically, I tried to force one of my pet cards back into the archetype, which led to some minor redesigns of the manabase and spell suite. In search of some more proper testing, I took the following deck out to a local five-round event.

Stutterblade

Spellstutter Sprite is not a complete stranger to Stoneblade lists. Players have previously shown interest in the little faerie that could, as it served both as a light control element that could easily disrupt cantrips or cheap threats, as well as an instant-speed threat that could pick up an Umezawa's Jitte out of nowhere. While the creature has fallen by the wayside in favor of cards that are individually more powerful, I believe that running a few copies of the Sprite in a deck that is slightly tuned to favor their interaction can do wonders against the field. The implicit changes that need to be made start with the addition of a few Mutavaults to the manabase. This means that the list has fewer slots for utility lands and that Wasteland is no longer a consideration here - although Wasteland contributed very little for Stoneblade decks compared to their role in RUG Delver and Goblins. 

Similarly, Mishra's Factory, a manland that is better equipped for combat, must also be benched. The impact here is notable only in particular situations such as 1) having to block an attack from Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or an exalted Qasali Pridemage or 2) having to close out a game with only manlands at your disposal, while also holding up counterspell mana. In this last example, having two copies of Mutavault would either prompt me to activate both and attack for four, effectively costing me four mana, or just attacking with one and holding up two lands. If those 'vaults were Mishra's Factories, I would also have the option to attack with a single creature and pump its stats using the remaining land, for a net cost of three mana. Regardless, I felt that those niche cases will come up less often and that the occasional hindrance will be greatly outweighed by the added bonus of having my Spellstutter counter a Nimble Mongoose irrespective of the opponent's Lightning Bolt.

Lastly, I opted for the third Vendilion Clique to replace the former singleton Geist of Saint Traft. While the spirit is great at closing out games against combo or control, it is much less effective at breaking through the defenses of a deck like Merfolk or Maverick, that can assuredly kill the attacker after just one swing. While the synergy between the Sprite and the Clique's creature type was not the paramount reason for making the swap, it represented the final straw that tipped the balance in favor of the instant speed threat.

The event itself went rather smoothly. After dropping round one against Maverick, I managed to scrape together a four match winning streak against Goblins, Esper Miracles, BUGstill and Nic Fit. There were some interesting play situations that I am keen to share with you, as well as a summary of the lessons I learned from the tournament. First of all, I blame my loss against the green/white deck on the awkward draws I had in both games, as well as my inability to ship back any starting hand that did not contain a form of creature removal. Although my opponent was kind enough to mulligan to five in the pre-board encounter, my inability to draw into a single Swords to Plowshares or Brainstorm proved to be my demise. I kept a hand of Spell Pierce, multiple Snapcasters and lands, knowing that I would have to draw into some more worthwhile targets to make my Mages better, but I was abruptly punished by a first turn Mother of Runes. By the end of this match, I was forced to cast three of my four Snapcasters as instant speed chump blockers with no added value, while the last one flashed back a Spell Snare to deal with a redundant Thalia. Game two was much of the same, although I had boarded in two copies each of Terminus and Path to Exile. I did have the turn two Stoneforge Mystic, but was relying on the two copies of Engineered Explosives to handle any threats that might come my way. Naturally, by turn five I was staring down two Knights of the Reliquary and a Choke, with no way to produce a third color of mana in my entire deck. Note to self: investigate off-color dual as an added utility land. While I admit that part of the reason behind my loss was my own decision to keep such hands in the first place, I believe there is little wrong in opting not to mulligan a set of seven that needs one card out of several in order to be ideal in the given matchup.

While I did ultimately manage to turn the result around against my Goblins opponent, I did get thrashed in the first game by none other than M13 superstar Krenko, Mob Boss. I was unaware that the recent four drop was adopted in the ranks of his older brethren, but after seeing it in action, I am convinced that it deserves a slot as a one-of Matron target. After tutoring Krenko up on the previous turn, my opponent used his Aether Vial to drop Goblin Warchief followed by the uncounterable legend, courtesy of Cavern of Souls. Within two activations, I was swarmed with 1/1 tokens and succumbed despite my Batterskull holding down the fort. After witnessing the spectacle, I was better prepared in the coming games and aggressively used my spot removal on his warchiefs, while putting the Mutavaults on blocking duty for any threatening Goblin Piledrivers. 

The last notable account from the event is the story of how I managed to play a turn two Jace in a control mirror. After my opponent, who was playing Nic Fit, was forced to mulligan down to five cards against my six, he opened on a Cabal Therapy naming Brainstorm. I had no such spell in my grip, but did show him a removal spell and a Jace, the Mind Sculptor, among several other lands. I drew for my turn, played a tapped Glacial Fortress and passed. On his second turn, he cast a Veteran Explorer and immediately sacrificed it to pay for the flashback cost of the Therapy. We both got to search for two basic lands and he eagerly attempted to resolve his discard spell by naming a card. I asked him to pause, tapped my islands and pointed the freshly drawn Counterspell at his spell. My good fortune continued, as he had no other relevant action before I got to untap, play a fourth land and slam the planeswalker on my second turn of the game. 

On the issue of mulligans, I did take several throughout the course of this (relatively) short event. I had to ship my starting hand six times and in three of those cases I was forced to go down one further. However, the deck proved incredibly resilient despite starting out at a card disadvantage. I managed to win two out of the three games where I mulliganed to five, specifically those where I squared off against control. Backed up by Brainstorm and Snapcaster Mage, a Stoneforge Mystic can make up for lost ground given enough time by endlessly recurring a Batterskull against opposing attackers or removal spells. Overall, by the time we got into the midgame stage, I could barely feel the effects of the mulligan on my board position and hand size.

Going forward, I am keen on testing out the three-color Esper build that is currently the most popular Stoneblade variation there is. The notion of swapping out some of the superfluous cards, such as the fourth Spell Pierce, for Inquisition of Kozilek is very appealing. Moreover, having access to a couple of copies of Lingering Souls in the sideboard should provide considerable aid in the RUG Delver matchup, as well as a solution to the oft forgotten Scryb Ranger that does a wonderful job of keeping Vendilion Clique at bay. As I have already seen here, allowing my Engineered Explosives to go up to three counters is sometimes a necessity, despite their initial purpose of dealing with untargetable one-drops or token swarms. The one disadvantage I can foresee is a manabase that is slightly weaker to Wasteland, due to increased difficulties in relying solely on basic lands to cast spells, as well as less room for colorless utility lands. Stand by for updates in my next column.

The New

I am unsure of whether or not this is mere coincidence, but the density of exciting cards spoiled in the first two weeks of Return to Ravnica previews seems skewed towards the black and green end of the spectrum. While there may yet be several impressive cards to be shown for the other guilds as well, the Golgari are currently the front-runners both in terms of Constructed viability and overall power lever for Limited play. Concerning the former, Abrupt Decay and Lotleth Troll might be the most solid additions to the Standard card pool so far, with an interesting planeswalker not very far behind. What Abrupt Decay brings to the format is a replacement for Doom Blade and Go for the Throat, the slightly situational two mana removal spells that we have gotten accustomed to since a few years back. There was already a murmur within the community that players will have to make due with the likes of Murder and Victim of Night, but the unveiling of this universal Smother effect has silenced the concern entirely. While it is true that the card cannot hit Baneslayer Angel sized threaths, the added versatility of handling enchantments such as Intangible Virtue or the newly spoiled Detention Sphere might make it the best removal spell in the format. The comparison with Dreadbore is one I am unwilling to make at this time, since I feel there is much more information required in order to voice a proper opinion on the two. Regardless, Dreadbore currently looks like a worse Terminate, whereas Abrupt Decay makes me think of Maelstrom Pulse in terms of play options and utility, not to mention its applications in Modern and Legacy.

The 'lol' Troll comes to enforce an already existing archetype that loses very little with the coming rotation. While the zombies deck has fiddled with several subpar choices for the two-drop slot, such as Skirdag High Priest and Highborn Ghoul, it can now adopt a very powerful creature to fill out its curve for the low, low price of switching its splash color from blue/red to green. Given how Phantasmal Image and Mortarpod are both leaving the format, I believe there is little incentive to resist the transformation considering everything we've seen so far from Return to Ravnica. With both the Troll and the Decay, backed up by the consistent manabase of Overgrown Tomb and Woodland Cemetery, I think Golgari Zombies will be one of the most popular decks in the first weeks after the rotation. (Pro tip: if your goal is winning, avoid running Slitherhead at all costs).

Driven by the nostalgia of old Ravnican memories, where I played Glare of Subdual decks in Standard, I decided to side with Selesnya for the upcoming prerelease event. Although it is still unconfirmed if the contents of the bonus guild pack will be fixed or semi-randomized, it is certain that each player will be able to use the corresponding intro pack flagship rare into his or her deck. For the green/white hive mind collective, that card is Grove of the Guardian. While an 8/8 beatstick that also contributes to defense is nothing to sneeze at already, I can't help but be excited at the synergy it has with the guild mechanic, populate. Cards with populate can be found at all rarities, from the common Rootborn Defenses and Eyes in the Skies to the mythic Trostani, Selesnya's Voice and as a result, I fully expect this to be a viable strategy for Selesnya's initiates the prerelease.

Moving back to the Golgari Swarm, the high power level of their cards can be remarked even at lower rarities. One of the standout Limited cards to far, to my mind, is Sluiceway Scorpion, an excellent method to control the board early and obtain threat superiority late. At just three mana, the scavenge cost is quite affordable, especially if we take into account the fact that it is tacked onto a creature that we effectively want to die most of the time. Trading the scorpion up for a larger threat, only to recycle it into a couple of +1/+1 counters seems very efficient and decks without evasion will have a tough time attacking through multiple copies of this guy.  

The Azorius seem like the best positioned guild to avoid the scorpion altogether. Apart from their detain mechanic that they can use to decommission the creature for one or more turns, most of their spoiled threats have some sort of built-in evasion, most often flying. With not many blue/white cards spoiled so far at common and uncommon rarity, it is still uncertain if the trend will continue, or if the mana costs of those flyers will be able to rival the aggressively priced Golgari fiends (see Dreg Mangler). After all, it wouldn't matter as much if you can hit for three in the air, if you're always getting hit for five on the ground in return.

I will stop here for today, waiting for the rest of the spoiler season to unfold before making any additional assumptions. So far, Return to Ravnica looks to live up to its predecessor, both in terms of power level, as well as overall flavor. Here's hoping that the trend continues and that we'll be blessed with two great years of Standard.

Until next time,

Adrian

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