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The Calm Before the Storm

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The letter T!his past weekend was the Dark Ascension Prerelease, so... kind of a lull week for competitive Constructed. Coming up next is Pro Tour Dark Ascension (in paradise, no less!), but we'll get to some of what you will see and hear as the best of the best brawl, you know, next week.

In the interim, we are going to use this week as kind of a multi-format catch-up to go over more cool Modern decks, as well as some Standard we didn't get a chance to talk about over the back-to-back weeks of holiday re-runs and consecutive Dark Ascension previews.

Let's go!

Two different, two cool, looks at Modern:

How to Make a Stoneforge Mystic

Stoneforge Mystic is a superb little two drop (that you can still play in Legacy). Once you drop a Stoneforge, you can go and find a singleton Batterskull or Sword of Feast and Famine and mop up the opponent—whatever the opponent—regardless of a counterspell wall; often, even if the opponent had removal.


Stoneforge Mystic proved half of the most dominant deck in the history of Standard last year—a little something-something by the name of CawBlade (you might remember it). Wizards R&D—when assembling their shiny new Modern format—pre-empted the possibility of a CawBlade tidal wave and banned Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic.

You can't actually run a Stoneforge Mystic in Modern, but you can maybe proxy one.



Sick_Variance played a metric ton of equipment—two Swords, a Batterskull, and even a Mortarpod! This Modern list plays about twice the equipment of a one-time Standard deck with the full four Stoneforge Mystics.

Steelshaper's Gift lets you search up equipment for one mana and Snapcaster Mage can combine with the Gift to play it and search up equipment more than once.


I like the mix of threats in this deck a lot. It plays twelve guys and they all "do something." Vendilion Clique is an offensively aggressive flier; both Squadron Hawk and Snapcaster Mage are card-advantage engines. In addition, Sick_Variance played a variety of Mutavault, Celestial Colonnade, and Standard-favorite Moorland Haunt to supplement the swordsmanship.

Cross-Block Common Ground


Here is another cool Modern deck, a mash-up PTQ-winner from about a week back.

So we have seen across multiple formats—from Standard to Legacy—players planting their flags into the common ground shared by Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage. Delver of Secrets loves an instant or a sorcery, while Snapcaster Mage uses them over and over again. These two Innistrad creatures are a happy little 1/1, 2/1, 3/2 family.

You know who what else likes an instant or a sorcery? Isochron Scepter!

So playing all these highly efficient cards together, Dracc0n has produced quite the package. Isochron Scepter plus Lightning Helix can wear down almost any beatdown deck without having to do much in the area of "drawing additional relevant cards." The creatures are solid no matter what, but Serum Visions can help ensure a Delver flips, and overall it is just super cheap (which can pair nicely with the potentially mana-hungry Snapcaster Mage).

Dracc0n's deck features a pretty cool interaction if you haven't seen it before.

Typically, Isochron Scepter can only imprint relatively cheap spells... you know, like the "Research" half of Research // Development. Consider that imprinted!

Well, now that the card is imprinted on the Isochron Scepter, you can play the five mana half instead.

No, I don't think it would take overly long to win if I had that combination of cards dominating the battlefield, do you?

Well, that's it for Modern this week. Let's take a minute to check in with Standard...

Different and the Same

When last Top Decks looked at Standard it was—if you can believe it—early December. Conley Woods put on a happy (and sad) performance at the World Championships that had some of his biggest fans wondering if the quintessential rogue had hung up his brewmaster distillery in favor of archetypes.

Well, flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, at Grand Prix Orlando. Conley won with a roguish take on some pretty great cards:


What's the same about this deck?

Conley played some reminiscent engine elements in one Birds of Paradise to go with Green Sun's Zenith. He added ramp in the form of Rampant Growth, the aforementioned Birds of Paradise and Green Sun's Zenith, Solemn Simulacrum, and even Sphere of the Suns.

What are they driving toward? Primeval Titan of course!

And Primeval Titan is getting Inkmoth Nexus and Kessig Wolf Run, of course!

Wolf Run Ramp?


Only kinda.

Conley's deck is actually more The Rock splashing red for Kessig Wolf Run than it is a Wolf Run Ramp deck.

Primeval Titan? Meet your new best buddy, Grave Titan.

Green Sun's Zenith as a mana engine? What about getting Glissa, the Traitor? You can set up a nice Ratchet Bomb combo to kill and kill again later.


You know what else is different? Geth's Verdict. Conley added Cruel Edict functionality, playing a card only seldom seen in black or blue-black decks... let alone a green one.

All together, Conley played lots of very good cards in a slightly different way. Grave Titan makes extra guys; great! They are eligible for Wolf Run pumps, even when the big 6/6 gets taken down. Even in a black-green deck, Primeval Titan can play the perfect setup: No red mana? You can just go and get a Dragonskull Summit or Mountain to make sure you can use it!


As the coverage said, Orlando was a "brewer's world," with not just Conley Woods as the event winner, but fellow innovator of new deck technologies Patrick Chapin sitting across the table vying for the GP title. Uncharacteristically, Patrick went with an almost-everything-colors Grixis Control:


So... what's the same about this deck?

Not much.

Patrick didn't even deign to play the full four copies of Snapcaster Mage!

Patrick's Grixis Control deck borrowed a fair amount from his previously featured World Championships deck, but shifted from a black-red deck splashing blue to a blue-black deck touching red. For example, he reduced the red count—ability to hit red early—and with that, Galvanic Blast. He went from the intense Slagstorm to the slight and quick Whipflare (which requires half the specific red).

That said, Patrick played some of the signature cards from his previous build—Olivia Voldaren as his principal "six drop" and Desperate Ravings as his primary route to card advantage.

Patrick borrowed from some of the other control decks (i.e., Tom Martell's white-blue deck) by adding the mighty Pristine Talisman. Pristine Talisman not only accelerates you but gives you an ongoing source of annoyance for beatdown decks. When combined with some legitimate resistance (point removal, a couple of counterspells) you can easily climb out of an early attack to stabilize, come back, and kick butt.


So... what's different?

All kinds of stuff!

Patrick rethought and changed up even the basic stuff: Inferno Titan as the actual-six six drop (as opposed to more popular control sixes, like Wurmcoil Engine), Curse of Death's Hold as an across-the-board answer to everything from the other guy's Snapcaster Mage to the ubiquitous danger of Moorland haunt, and even Sorin Markov as a singleton. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a Sorin Markov in a competitive deck? Chances are, the guy advocating for that six would have been Conley Woods!

Anyway, Patrick is, per usual, all about pushing the limits of this game we all love, and his almost-championship deck has some good examples of his ever-evolving thought process. Take those two Ponders...

Ponder is almost always a four-of. Players like to run cards like this to smooth out early game mana or regulate lands and spells from the first turn. In Legacy, Ponder typically gets the nod over Preordain because it digs one deeper and Legacy has all those Flooded Strands (whereas Preordain, without so many Polluted Deltas, was the better card in Standard). Anyway, you usually see more than two Ponders.


Here, Ponder is a very strategic card, but not in the manner of most examples of strategic deck design dating back the last fifteen years or so. Patrick actually used the Ponders off-label; they were simply just better than whatever he cut. They lowered his curve, gave him a way to plug an early-game mana hole, and let him cut a land. Unlike in a storm combo deck (or any combo deck) they didn't serve a particular strategic end in terms of the deck's plan; rather, they kind of made the rest of the deck run a wee bit better, and maybe made the pilot's life easier.

A very strange two of, I think you will agree—and not the kind of two-of most of us will come up with most days. Yet, I think you can see how just swapping out two cards for two "generally better" ones can serve a deck's ends—especially in a case like this, where we have so many different cards with different unique functionalities, so many of which are two-ofs or three-ofs, themselves.

Heck, there are all kinds of one-ofs!

The Top Deck

Rather than go through every iteration of every deck, we'll wrap up this Top Decks with, literally, the top deck.

Even with players like Conley and Chapin challenging the Standard format with legitimately different, exciting, or "out there" ideas—and succeeding with them—many commentators have declared the format "solved" ... and they call it solved with this evolution:

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's White-Blue Delver
Standard, Grand Prix Orlando 2012


White-Blue Delver is the current Standard evolution of what we saw from the first weeks of Innistrad and Moorland Haunt, the spiritual and literal inheritor of Todd Anderson's splashing of Moorland Haunt in what was then Mono-Blue Illusions.


Ironically, gone are the Illusions!

The deck—the format—has embraced one of the most impressive one-drops of all time in Delver of Secrets, and has adopted an overall aggro-control configuration.

Delver of Secrets lets you "get the jump" on basically any deck. It's fast and you can play it on the first turn. In this deck, you can also protect it immediately with a Mana Leak. Delver's job is to beat up the opponent (ideally for three, as quickly as possible), but the deck has lots of other aggressive and tricky threats. Geist of Saint Traft is legitimately hard to answer; surprisingly, two drop Invisible Stalker might be even harder. You can at least block a Geist of Saint Traft and make your opponent cast another one. Invisible Stalker just gets in.

And combined with equipment like Sword of War and Peace and Runechanter's Pike? It doesn't take long for that 1/1 to just out-and-out kill you. Sword of War and Peace gives the normally fragile blue creatures a little more life expectancy, and helps the under-sized blue and white creatures race in the face of fast 6/6s or lots of direct damage. Runechanter's Pike—seemingly a throwaway—can actually make creatures huge when so much of the deck is devoted to setting up Delvers and Snapcaster Mages. As we said a moment ago, it really doesn't take long to win with an armored up Invisible Stalker.

As ever, Moorland Haunt is the big backup, but it isn't the only source of 1/1 flying tokens...


I'm just going to leave you with that.

A picture of Midnight Haunting, and the memory of buying back another two 1/1 fliers with the help of Snapcaster Mage.

Why?

To remind you that that card is good enough. In the face of Primeval Titans finding Kessig Wolf Run and Inkmoth Nexus, Midnight Haunting is good enough. It has won a Grand Prix in a non-blue deck and proven a useful surprise both during combat (to block) and to set up an Equipment attack when the opponent thought the coast was clear (end of your turn, give myself a swordsman or two).

Midnight Haunting | Art by Matt Stewart

Ultimately, everything is going to change.

Like now-ish.

Dark Ascension is going to rock and scrap many of the decks in Standard and will make itself felt in big old Modern as well. Blue-Red Storm? Meet my man Faithless Looting! Ting!

And Midnight Haunting?

We have an even better option in Lingering Souls. Lingering Souls is like all four Squadron Hawks in one card!


Standard solved? Maybe, maybe not. And even if it's true? Everything is about to change.

I can't wait to find out how.



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