Analysis of the Caw

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Caw-Blade has been clearly established as the dominant deck in this Standard format.

As most of you know, it exists in 3 broad frames: straight Blue-White, the Red splash, and the Black splash. The following table shows examples of each taken from the StarCityGames Open Series. It is somewhat messy because it does not follow the conventions of a normal decklist, but rather is organized in terms of which cards are common among the decks.

UW, Rick Zou UWb, Gerry Thompson UWr, AJ Sacher Agreed Upon
Gideon Jura 3 3 3 3
Glacial Fortress 4 3 3 3
Island 4 2 2 2
Jace, the Mind Sculptor 4 4 4 4
Mana Leak 3 3 2 2
Plains 4 5 4 4
Preordain 4 4 4 4
Seachrome Coast 4 4 3 3
Squadron Hawk 4 4 4 4
Stoneforge Mystic 4 4 4 4
Sword of Feast and Famine 1 2 2 1
Tumble Magnet 2 2
Arid Mesa 1 4
Celestial Colonnade 4 3
Day of Judgment 3 3
Scalding Tarn 1 3
Spell Pierce 4 3
Baneslayer Angel 1
Sylvok Lifestaff 1
Tectonic Edge 4
Condemn 1
Creeping Tar Pit 4
Darkslick Shores 3
Doom Blade 1
Go for the Throat 1
Inquisition of Kozilek 4
Jace Beleren 1
Marsh Flats 4
Swamp 2
Inferno Titan 1
Lightning Bolt 3
Mountain 3
Terramorphic Expanse 2

Maindeck Total 60 61 60 34

Sideboard Total 15 15 15 2

Flashfreeze 2 4 4 2
Volition Reins 2 1
Divine Offering 2 2
Sun Titan 1 1
Condemn 3 1
Baneslayer Angel 1
Kor Firewalker 3
Mortarpod 1
Oust 2
Sword of Body and Mind 1
Doom Blade 1
Duress 2
Into the Roil 2
Jace Beleren 1
Memoricide 1
Basilisk Collar 1
Cunning Sparkmage 4
Spreading Seas 1
Sylvok Lifestaff 1

It is tempting but ultimately futile to analyze each color individually, as card selection can vary wildly. It would be possible to build an Esper-colored Caw-Blade deck which eschews Inquisition of Kozilek for additional copies of Doom Blade and a 60-card deck. It is possible to take the Red manabase and put the Cunning Sparkmage in the maindeck.

The shared "core" of the deck is 34 cards, including 12 lands. This leaves room for an additional 14 lands and 12 non-land cards (assuming you wish to adhere to the rule of 60).

For nonland cards, Rick Zou chose 2 Tumble Magnet, 3 Day of Judgment, 4 Spell Pierce, 1 Baneslayer Angel, 1 Sylvok Lifestaff, and an additional Mana Leak,

Gerry Thompson chose 2 Tumble Magnet, 1 Angel of Condemnation, 1 Doom Blade, 1 Go for the Throat, 4 Inquisition of Kozilek, 1 Jace Beleren, and extra Sword of Feast and Famine and Mana Leaks. He also played an extra land to go to 61 cards.

AJ Sacher chose 3 Day of Judgment, 3 Spell Pierce, 3 Lightning Bolt, 1 Inferno Titan, an extra Sword of Feast and Famine, and added 1 to the land count.

The important thing is not to pick a color for the cards, but to pick cards for a purpose and then realize which cards can and cannot be shared in the same deck.

The basic rule is thus:

Black cards cannot be played alongside Red cards. Neither Black or Red cards can be played alongside Tectonic Edge. The logic here is simple: the manabase becomes too fragile.

What's the consequence of that rule?

If you splash, the deck becomes correspondingly weaker to manlands, Valakut, and Eldrazi Ramp. The deck designer must decide whether to accept this gained weakness, or regain that advantage via other means.

Where Lightning Bolt is chosen, Basilisk Collar in conjunction with Cunning Sparkmage reduces the threat level of Primeval Titan and the [card Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre]Eldrazi[/card].

Where Creeping Tar Pit is chosen, the ability to attack the mana ramp with Inquisition of Kozilek is the game plan.

Let's evaluate some of these specific card choices more closely.

Day of Judgment

Excluding [card Day of Judgment]Day[/card], as Gerry Thompson did, significantly weakens the deck in Aggro matchups, putting more weight on the spot removal, Gideon Jura, and leading to the use of Squadron Hawk as chump-blockers. The important thing to note about cutting Day of Judgment is that Inquisition of Kozilek can represent a massive life-total swing over the course of a long game by hitting a powerful 2-drop such as Plated Geopede, or even a Goblin Guide when on the play. This is what gives the Black version of the deck breathing room when cutting sweepers. A similar effect can be achieved with use of Lightning Bolt in the Red deck, whereas Grim Roustabout and Angel of Condemnation are both somewhat awkward to use in this manner in the no-splash version. Angel of Condemnation is obviously the better of the two, but is weaker elsewhere.

Remember that the goal of cutting Day of Judgment is to free up room elsewhere in the deck to gain advantages against other matchups. As such, the Black version is the most well-positioned of the 3 to make this move. Cutting Day of Judgment to play 4 Angel of Condemnation alongside 4 Grim Roustabout or 4 Lightning Bolt would be entirely counterproductive.

Spot Removal

The endless argument over Doom Blade and Go for the Throat is largely irrelevant. At the current point in the metagame, Doom Blade kills Precursor Golem, where Go for the Throat kills Creeping Tar Pit, but the two are essentially comparable. The real debate is between the non Black kill spells: Lightning Bolt, Grim Roustabout, and Angel of Condemnation. Ironically, Lightning Bolt is arguably the worst of the creature removal spells, but does double duty against Jace, the Mind Sculptor and can kill a Creeping Tar Pit. Angel of Condemnation is the absolute best against anything that has to attack, and is able to kill a swinging Creeping Tar Pit, but is miserable against Primeval Titan[card], [card]Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and creatures with activated abilities - most relevantly Cunning Sparkmage and Fauna Shaman. Grim Roustabout is nearly as good as the Black kill spells against activated abilities and Eldrazi, but awful against manlands and Sword of Feast and Famine. The other main option is Mortarpod which mostly sees play because it can be searched with Stoneforge Mystic.

Precursor Golem Creeping Tar Pit Walkers Cheap Dorks Eldrazi Titans Equips Activated Abilities
Lightning Bolt + + + + + +
Condemn + + + + - +
Oust + + + + +
Doom Blade + + + + + +
Go for the Throat + + + + + +
Mortarpod + - -

Obviously none of these deal with [card Emrakul, the Aeons Torn]Emrakul[/card], and Doom Blade can't deal with Grave Titan. The minus denotes that the card is somewhat useful, but not universally so. Angel of Condemnation on a Primeval Titan can help - but often will leave you dead to Valakut triggers. Mortarpod can kill a Cunning Sparkmage, but it can't kill a Fauna Shaman without help.
Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, and Angel of Condemnation can deal with Gideon Jura in combat, but not otherwise.

Example Usage

Let's say we want to build Caw-Blade to beat Valakut.

Tectonic Edge is the first non-core card to enter the deck, and forces us to abandon the splash colors. Grim Roustabout becomes our spot removal of choice, making us vulnerable to manlands (the Edge shores up that weakness, which makes this a nice pairing). We play additional counterspells in the main, including Spell Pierce. Tumble Magnet will join the fray since it can stop Primeval Titan from attacking. Sword of Body and Mind becomes our second equipment, since it can render Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle useless. We put Baneslayer Angel in the deck since its lifelink will slow down Valakut's clock by a turn or two, and it gives us a better chance to kill them. Our sideboard will contain Flashfreeze as well as possibly Spreading Seas, and would contain high-impact cards such as Day of Judgment to flip modes against other decks.

As you'll note, this is very similar to Rick Zou's maindeck. The sole differences are that Zou ran a single Sylvok Lifestaff maindeck where I have Sword of Body and Mind, and he has Day of Judgment over Grim Roustabout. This gives him a solid matchup against both Valakut and Aggro decklists. Obviously my list here is overkill - Day of Judgment is perfectly serviceable as a "spot kill" card against Primeval Titan, and is quite good against Avenger of Zendikar.

Choosing Day over Grim Roustabout is a perfect example of how to "split" the advantage - to let one card choice give you an advantage in multiple matchups by serving completely different roles. Against Valakut (and other ramp decks), Day is "spot removal" that kills anything from Primeval Titan to Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Against Aggro decks, Day serves its more conventional role as the best sweeper in the format.

On paper, going straight Blue-White with this strategy gives the deck an advantage against the Aggro decks and ramp decks, while not having much of a specialized plan in the mirror match.

Another Split Advantage

Inquisition of Kozilek is the ultimate role-player in this regard. Against aggressive decks, it acts as pre-emptive removal, taking out an early threat. In the mirror, it can free the way for a spell to resolve by yanking a counterspell, it can "destroy" a Sword of Feast and Famine - or stop the opponent from ever searching one up by taking Stoneforge Mystic. Against ramp decks, it aims to take the mana ramp itself, pairing off with Sword of Feast and Famine and Mana Leak to attempt to deny the opponent the ability to ever land Titans or Eldrazi in the first place, and to use Tumble Magnet to prevent them from attacking if they do land a threat. In addition, the inherent upgrade of Celestial Colonnade to Creeping Tar Pit gives the deck an undeniable advantage in the mirror match's Planeswalker fights - unless it gets hit by Angel of Condemnation!

However, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle can go over the top the "hard way" against this variant, and trading in mass removal for spot removal and discard is a dicey proposition at best against the fast Aggro decks.

Angry Birds Win

Lightning Bolt kills Lotus Cobra and Joraga Treespeaker against Ramp. It can kill a creature in response to an equipment being moved, it can kill either Jace, it can even kill players outright. Not to mention, Cunning Sparkmage wearing a Basilisk Collar kills damn near everything! So why isn't this just the obviously best variation? The mana is worse, for one thing - unlike a dual land which can be used for either color multiple times, a fetchland can only get one color forever, so a Mountain grabbed early can cut you off double Blue or double White. A dead Cunning Sparkmage isn't killing anything, and one without a Collar can't kill much. While this is almost certainly the best variant of Caw-Blade to run against an aggressive deck such as Boros, its decreased consistency and lack of Tectonic Edges give it a worse Valakut matchup. Switching other cards around could change this, at some cost - which probably isn't worth it (it'd be better to go back to the straight Blue-White version).

Final Words

This article doesn't have a decklist to pick up and go play. It contains a shell, and rough guidelines on how to build upon that shell. Doing so will allow you to understand why your deck is playing the cards it is, and perhaps give you a better sideboarding plan as a result. If you accept the 34-card core of Caw-Blade, you have 14 lands and 12 nonland cards to change at will, plus a 15-card sideboard. If you think Gerry Thompson is crazy for not playing Day of Judgment you're already down to only 9 free slots in your potentially 3-color deck. Those 9 maindeck slots (8 once you include a second equipment!) must attack a metagame which is so turned in on itself that the mirror match and Valakut are the two most prevalent decks in existence, with Aggro on the outside looking in, and people metagaming by building Naya decks specifically to hate you out. Your sideboard must be focused and flexible at the same time - able to attack the mirror, Valakut, Boros, Vampires, Mono Red, Goblins, Eldrazi Green, miscellaneous Naya homebrews, and that one guy's Genesis Wave/Ezuri, Renegade Leader/Pyromancer Ascension deck. Some of these options are simple - Red loses to Kor Firewalker, Naya loses to Linvala, Keeper of Silence, Boros, Vampires, and Elves all lose to more sweepers (barring an Eldrazi Monument!), various fatties across the board are worth stealing with Volition Reins, the mirror can be fought with Divine Offering and Sun Titan, and... wait, how many sideboard cards is that now? And what am I taking out for each of these matchups? It's not at all simple, and the deck must be built so that it has the flexibility to focus on each in turn.

The first broad course of action is to powerfully target specific decks with the maindeck, then take those cards out for cards that target other specific decks instead. The downside here is obvious - you sacrifice your game 1 odds against the "other" decks, and if you guess wrong, you will be holding dead cards far too often. The upside is that your sideboarding decisions become simpler, and Jace can pair with many cards in Caw-Blade to shuffle off the dead cards.

The second course of action is to play multirole cards and board in more focused cards. However, this makes sideboarding decisions very complicated as your maindeck will no longer contain anything which is inherently bad against a particular deck! I've seen people put 8 cards in their sideboard for their "worst matchup" then be utterly unable to find more than 2 or 3 cards to take out. That's a result of insufficient testing and ill-thought-out deckbuilding. It is depressingly common to see people copy decklists with this strategy and actually make their deck worse in a matchup after sideboarding.

It is worth noting that the "core" cards in Caw-Blade are not sacred cows! Some players board out the 4th Squadron Hawk in certain matchups, and boarding a Jace or two out against Aggro decks is a fairly common play as well. Mana Leak is another card which can be cut from the core if the situation requires it.

SCG Atlanta

A word to visitors: SCG Atlanta is not even in Atlanta - it's OTP, some 30 minutes away from Midtown. The upside to this is that there's ample parking, and it's all for free.

However, when you go to look something for to do after you 0-2 drop because you played Kuldotha Red, the nearby Discover Mills has some interesting shops and restaurants, including a Medieval Times (though that's likely incompatible with tournament success and you may have to make a reservation). Those of you who haven't been to a Five Guys burger joint should consider it for your junk food needs, but if you insist on conventional fast food, there is a Wendy's nearby. I haven't been in either of the taverns nearby, so I can't attest to their relative quality.

Those of you looking to party Saturday night and not play in any tournaments Sunday should make the drive into Atlanta (provided you have a place to sleep within walking distance, or a designated driver) and hit up the bars and restaurants in Midtown/Ponce. Depending on just how depraved (or depressed from losing) you are, the options range from generic bars and taverns all the way up to the well-known Clermont Lounge.

The Vortex, home of the Double Bypass Burger, is famous due to an appearance on Man versus Food. Despite this, it's actually a quality restaurant.

Too much burger for you? Sublime Donuts is a local donut shop that puts Krispy Kreme to shame. If you want the best of both worlds, Cypress Street Pint & Plate makes a Sublime Burger which is served on two of the namesake Donuts.

Had enough food and booze suggestions? Dad's Garage is an improv comedy theater and also home of Baconfest Atlanta. Unfortunately, the Baconfest was last weekend, so you'll have to settle for comedy. Their last show starts at 10:30 on both Friday and Saturday and runs until roughly midnight.

The Georgia Aquarium is an extremely popular tourist attraction, but don't let that deter you - it's an amazing experience. The tunnel that lets you walk underneath the sharks is truly impressive.

The nearby World of Coca-Cola, on the other hand, is really only of interest to coke junkies and marketing buffs. That said, it's absurdly popular for some reason, and pranking your buddies into drinking Beverly is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.

As for me? I want a trophy in each arm by the end of Sunday night.

Joshua Justice

@JoshJMTG on Twitter

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