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Innistrad: The First Look

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The letter T!he 2011s—a.k.a. Champs, a.k.a. States, etc.—are going to be upon us in a matter of weeks.


By any name, States has been my favorite tournament of the year for some five or six years (at least before the advent of the Star City Games Open Series), States gave us our first real look at a new set's format, what exciting cards might pan out to be good in Standard, and, of course, bragging rights.

So... What's going to be good?

Thanks to the StarCityGames.com event in Indianapolis this past weekend, we may have a skeleton to work from.


Red Decks

Let's start at the top, with the blazing initial success of Red Deck Wins (which finished first and second in this Top 8):

David Doberne's Mono-Red
Standard – Winner, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


David Doberne won the Open with a fairly straightforward Mono-Red deck (albeit with a slightly higher high end than we might be used to).

Koth of the Hammer | Art by Jason Chan

David played a Chandra's Phoenix deck, combining burn spells and creature damage with the mighty Koth of the Hammer. Utilizing a strategy that will probably ultimately be the norm for Standard, David played Stormblood Berserker and a bunch of one-drops. Get in with Stromkirk Noble (or Goblin Arsonist, or Spikeshot Elder... or even Grim Lavamancer), get big on turn two.

Though the deck has a ton of one-drops, Doberne also played several four-mana spells, including the aforementioned Koth of the Hammer, but also the mighty Hero of Oxid Ridge. Hero is adept at helping otherwise helpless red weenies go over the top of Timely Reinforcements tokens, or get past (literally!) powerless defenders, be they 0/4 or 0/13.

Burn is provided by the terrifying Shrine of Burning Rage, the former-Hawk-slaying Arc Trail, classic Incinerate, and newcomer Brimstone Volley. It is important to note that despite the mix of several different existing burn cards, with the exception of the all-powerful Shrine, the only four-of burn spell David played main was Brimstone Volley. And no surprise there: When you set up morbid, it takes down 25+% of the opponent's life total!


For the next two years (and maybe into the Extended, Modern, or even Legacy formats), Brimstone Volley is going to offer strategic opportunity for planning and proper play, from both sides of the table. Keep in mind that blocking with value late is going to "turn on" the Volley, probably after an opponent has already started to whittle you down. It may make more sense to trade at a point where the opponent has less mana available (and has to choose between morbid and battlefield development) than to "win" a fight but lose the game.


Scott Tompkins's Mono-Red
Standard – 2nd place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


Scott Tompkins also played a Chandra's Phoenix deck. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the decks, down to a trio of Incinerates in both.

Chandra's Phoenix | Art by Aleksi Briclot

Both decks played four copies of Stormblood Berserker and a ton of one-drops, but the Tompkins deck has an extra trick up its sleeve: Gut Shot. Gut shot allows you to do a little chip damage without paying any mana. You can shoot the opponent and tap both your lands to run out a fully-formed Berserker on a turn two with no dude, or you can eliminate the opponent's turn-one blocker in order to get your one-drop in.


In 2011, even single-color decks can play a wide variety of cards. Phyrexian mana made Dismember accessible, but it took Rootbound Crag to give Scott Ancient Grudge. Ancient Grudge is of course one of the most popular flashback cards, ever. Despite the fact that it is historically an Extended breaker, Ancient Grudge in this format helps you take out Birthing Pod, Sword of Feast and Famine, Spellskite, and every creature in the Tempered Steel deck.


Aside: In Honor of Werewolf Week: The Non-Top 8 Red Deck

Joe Bernal just missed out on Top 8, finishing in 9th place with this Red Deck:

Joe Bernal's Wolf Run Red
Standard – 9th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


Bernal's deck has many of the same themes as the previous looks at red—Chandra's Phoenix and a load of one-drops—but the Werewolf difference here is which one-drops. Joe played Reckless Waif, which can become a 3/2 attacker with a little luck.

In addition to actual Werewolf Reckless Waif / Merciless Predator we see some Wolf-ish, yet not-technically-Werewolf, options:

  • Garruk Relentless / Garruk, the Veil-Cursed is a somewhat odd splash for a Red Deck. This planeswalker not only spits out Wolves, but he also transforms (just like a Werewolf).
  • Kessig Wolf Run even has the word "Wolf" in the name and "werewolf" in the flavor text. Aooooooo!


Joe's deck obviously has a more significant green splash than the previous deck; he has lots more green cards to support—Garruk Relentless and the activation fee on Kessig Wolf Run—plus quite a few in the sideboard.

White-Blue Decks

Todd Anderson's White-Blue Illusions
Standard – 3rd place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


TCGPlayer.com Championship winner Todd Anderson brought Illusions with him to the Open, and he was well served.

Mental Misstep | Art by Erica Yang

The current Standard environment has only two missing cards relative to the last format's Illusions deck. There is lots of competition for that Spell Pierce slot! Todd moved some Mental Missteps to the deck from (presumably) the sideboard and added Dismember. Snapcaster Mage is an upgrade at two mana over Renegade Doppelganger any day of the week.

What Todd did differently was around his mana base. Moorland Haunt is a card we will see more of over the next two years, and it is really impressive. So impressive, in fact, that Todd didn't play any white spells main. His entire twisted mana base was just to make this card available. So even if Phantasmal Dragon "dies to Dismember" (it does), that doesn't mean it can't contribute long term. Every dead body can be a live body—er... a not-live, but battlefield-present ghost, actually—at some point in the future with the help of this awesome land.


Ricky Allaer played a very different Moorland Haunt deck—same colors (plus Dismember, of course) as Todd, but more reminiscent of last season's CawBlade archetype, even without the Caw.

Ricky Allaer's White-Blue Blade
Standard – 4th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


The model is the same as good old Caw-Blade: Awesome, card advantage-generating, creatures in Snapcaster Mage and Hero of Bladehold; plus Consecrated Sphinx at the top of the curve. Gideon Jura plays defense alongside Day of Judgment, and the various Equipment can make any creature into a brutal killing machine.

Speaking of killing machines, Geist of Saint Traft fits exactly that description. Thanks to hexproof, the opponent can't target it. Now a 2/2 for three mana isn't particularly hard to stop in the Red Zone... unless it is an unstoppable killing machine. Enter: Equipment.


You slap a Sword of Feast and Famine onto a Geist, and all of a sudden it looks like you are going to get hit in the face (with an extra 4/4 as well, probably). Because of hexproof, stopping the Geist or removing it in response is difficult. Few decks can answer a Sword from the main.

Ricky played lots of the usual White-Blue regalia, including Timely Reinforcements (which should be great against the kinds of decks that actually finished first and second in this tournament), but what seems super cool is the combination of Gitaxian Probe and Nevermore.

Aside: Super Combo – Gitaxian Probe + Nevermore

Nevermore | Art by Jason A. Engle

Gitaxian Probe is (at least situationally) one of the strongest cards available. (You might not think about it this way, but it sees play up to and including Modern, getting rave reviews everywhere.)

Gitaxian Probe allows very good players to make the exact correct play by giving them near-perfect information. Now what if you combine that with a card like Nevermore? Might that be an interesting uniform to try on? Not only do you know what you are up against, but you can make the right strategic play. Consider:

  • If the opponent has multiples of a particular kind of card, You can get a Hymn to Tourach-like effect via virtual two-for-one.
  • What really matters? Just knowing what you are up against can help you set up your game, even if the opponent doesn't have exactly the card that beats you "right this second." Even if it might be cool to stop an upcoming Solemn Simulacrum, just naming "Birthing Pod" (which your opponent doesn't have (yet)) can save you a boatload of headaches later.

End aside.

Moorland Haunt is the kind of card that, apparently, can go into all different kinds of decks. We have seen it in an Illusions variant and a descendant of Caw-Blade already; now how about a pure aggro strategy?

Court Schuett's Moorland Aggro
Standard – 5th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


Schuett played a pretty straight White Weenie Humans deck with a blue splash for Geist of Saint Traft and Moorland Haunt. In fact, this is a much more concerted look at the Geist than a one-of deck, and this deck is capable of something pretty fast, and fairly awful (for the opponent).

Geist of Saint Traft | Art by Igor Kieryluk

Say you are a nonblue deck. How are you supposed to deal with Geist of Saint Traft into Angelic Destiny? With the extra 4/4 Angel, that is 10 points of damage right there! Assuming the opponent is tapped out or something, Mirran Crusader + Angelic Destiny is pretty unstoppable, itself; there is a reason R&D is careful with double strike. The thing that is crazy about these sequences is that they are so "not-special"-looking. When someone lays out a Mirran Crusader you don't necessarily say "Hey, this seems like one half of the end of the world." ...Yet combined with a different card that also doesn't inspire thoughts of armageddon by itself, you have a very potent combination.

So... Why Humans?

There are lots of great creatures for white in the format (and this deck includes a fair number of them). Why, then, limit yourself to Humans for the most part? Here is a pretty good reason:


It is well known that great beatdown decks attack and chunk in damage before an ostensibly more powerful deck can get defenses up. So one-drops are important. Well, Champion of the Parish is a one-drop... and one that can crush for triple the usual damage given the right draw. Can you imagine turn two Champion #2 and Elite Vanguard?

Champ gets along *ahem* like a champ with Hero of Bladehold, too.


Solar Flare was a huge deal five years ago, rocking Magic Online and eventually winning the US National Championship (among other fine finishes). Look for Solar Flare to make a comeback in Standard, and to put up more finishes like William's, for the next two years or so. Good cards make good deck and all that.

Standard Solar Flare is going to have a lot in common with what you might generally think of as a White-Blue Control shell (Day of Judgment, Timely Reinforcements, and so on)... but in this case, we have the addition of some key black spells.

Black gives the White-Blue shell some fast removal in the form of Doom Blade, but also a major threat in the form of Liliana of the Veil.


Sun Titan is an important addition; its synergies are just too good in Flare. Sun Titan + Snapcaster Mage seems very much like a dozen different, backbreaking, Snapcaster Mages. Liliana of the Veil is powerful, but not particularly easy to keep around. Sun Titan can buy Liliana back every time the opponent invests cards to get rid of it. Brutal.

Be ready.

Tempered Steel

The last major archetype of the Indianapolis Top 8 was HawkWard, or Tempered Steel. Like the red decks that finished first and second, the Tempered Steel decks had two representatives in the elimination rounds.

Tempered Steel | Art by Wayne Reynolds

From a high-level standpoint, HawkWard is a straight aggro deck. It's got Glint Hawks and Glint Hawk Idols, and they hit the opponent in the face from the second turn. The vast majority of the deck's threats are artifacts, which makes Tempered Steel an absolute terror. Every Memnite is 3/3 (if not 5/5 or bigger), and so on and so forth. Vault Skirge, as you can imagine, is quite the little threat with a Tempered Steel on the battlefield, a racer to make old Vampire Nighthawk jealous.

Both of the Top 8 Tempered Steel decks played Shrine of Loyal Legions in the main or side (or both), and that card is an ample source of threats, and can be one of two big ways these decks fight back against Day of Judgment or other sweepers (traditionally the bane of non-burn-bearing weenie strategies). The other is Inkmoth Nexus.

Inkmoth Nexus? Isn't that like the only infect creature in the whole HawkWard deck?


Be that as it may, the presence of a nontraditional way to win can actually be advantageous here. So even if the opponent blows up all your guys with a Slagstorm, if you have Tempered Steel and an Inkmoth Nexus you are right back in it! It doesn't take long for a 3/3 infect creature to win the game, no matter how much life the opponent racked up with Timely Reinforcements, and the Nexus is notoriously hard to kill if you aren't specifically aiming for cards like it (due to the move to Doom Blade over Go for the Throat, the loss of Disfigure and Spreading Seas, etc.).

The other cool thing about a deck full of artifacts is the ability to run Dispatch. Dispatch feels very much like a Swords to Plowshares did years ago... but with metalcraft, without the boost in life gain disadvantage! This is a pretty big plus for a beatdown deck.


Speaking of Swords to Plowshares doctrine, neither player was above the additional two-of from Dismember.

Greg Norris's Tempered Steel
Standard – 6th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


Ari Lax's Tempered Steel
Standard – 7th place, StarCityGames.com Open in Indianapolis


One thing to keep in mind is that Ari said in another forum that Hero of Bladehold was his best threat, and he wouldn't cut one, despite its lack of synergy with the traditional edits of the HawkWard archetype.

I am going to be doing commentary at the next StarCityGames.com Open this coming weekend in Nashville. Check me out Saturday and Sunday on SCGLive... and look for more insight as we approach States right here, next week, on Top Decks!



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