Last week I played in a standard tournament for four Jace, the Mind Sculptors. I played SparkBlade, a list very similar to the one in my last article. I cut the maindeck Spellskites and Phyrexian Revokers for a third maindeck Mirran Crusader, two Dismembers, and three Into the Roils. The idea was that the Dismembers and the Into the Roils would help against the UR Twin combo deck the same way the Spellskites and Revokers did, but at instant speed instead of being proactive. After Mike Flores' recent win and articles insisting that Izzet was superior to the Grixis flavored builds I figured more people would be piloting Into the Roils than Duresses or Inquisition of Kozileks, which makes reactive answers more effective than proactive ones.
So why SparkBlade instead of UW or DarkBlade? Mostly because I like the ability to threaten opponent's Jaces with Cunning Sparkmages. Having a Sparkmage in play can make the opponent's Jace-related decisions quite a bit more difficult, as you can threaten an EOT ping, untap, ping. Having a haste creature can also be quite useful for carrying a Sword of War and Peace as a surprise. Shooting down Squadron Hawks or an Inkmoth Nexus or two is also a nice bonus, even before you add Basilisk Collar to the equation. If you ever draw a second Sparkmage you can do even more unfair things, from taking down Mirran Crusaders to posing a serious threat to an opponent's life total in a stalemate.
The mana is also better than DarkBlade. DarkBlade has more dual lands available to it but fewer fetchlands, while SparkBlade has fewer duals and more fetches. This makes DarkBlade's mana better in the late game when it has all of its lands untapped, while SparkBlade is better in the early game because it has more lands that come into play untapped. The major difference, however, is that DarkBlade is a three color deck while SparkBlade is a UW deck that is splashing red. DarkBlade wants to have a first turn black source to cast a turn one Inquisition of Kozilek or Despise followed by a white source for a second turn Stoneforge Mystic, and then have running blue sources to make a fourth turn Jace, the Mind Sculptor possible. Think about Mirran Crusader as well and you have a recipe for disaster. SparkBlade, however, has much more easy to hit mana requirements. It is a UW Caw deck that is splashing red for Cunning Sparkmage and nothing else, and the Sparkmage is good at any point in the game. A turn three Sparkmage is good, but it is not a disaster if you do not draw the red to cast it until later in the game - a turn six Sparkmage and equip with Basilisk Collar is still an excellent play and will have a dramatic effect on the board. Compare that with DarkBlade - if it is missing its black source until turn six it will be severely handicapped. A late game Cunning Sparkmage is also a better topdeck than a late game Duress effect.
I also like SparkBlade more than DarkBlade because the Cunning Sparkmage+Basilisk Collar is a must answer problem for Deceiver Exarch+Splinter Twin, but DarkBlade does not have anything equivalent. It can disrupt their hand in the early game while SparkBlade cannot, but they can topdeck their way out of it. Assembling Sparkmage+Collar means that the only thing you have to play around is Into the Roil, and everything else they play is irrelevant. Once assembled, you turn the game into a subgame of, "can you resolve an Into the Roil AND the combo before I can kill you?," and often the answer is 'no'.
I split third/fourth place, losing to a UW Caw in the semis. Along the way a number of interesting plays cropped up that I thought could be illuminating to discuss.
In the first round I played against UR Twin. He had to mulligan and led with Island, Preordain, Island, Tectonic Edge, which made me think he was playing the MonoBlue Grand Architect deck. I had a turn two Stoneforge Mystic and searched up a Sword of Feast and Famine to start wrecking his hand. On my fourth turn I missed my land drop and had to decide if I wanted to equip or not before attacking. My relevant cards in hand were Mana Leak and Into the Roil. If I equip and he has an answer for my Mystic I will be in a lot of trouble because it will be hard to come back from that kind of tempo loss on three land. If I can successfully equip and attack, however, my mana shortage will lose most of its bite, and I will begin attacking his hand.
There are several things to consider here.
1) What is he playing?
He led with Island, Preordain on turn one, followed by Island Go and Tectonic Edge Go on turns two and three after a mulligan. From that I put him on the Grand Architect deck most likely, followed by a mana screwed CawBlade or UR Twin as other possibilities. It is a safe bet that there is more CawBlade in the tournament than either Grand Architect or UR Twin.
2) What are his answers?
Before I can choose whether or not to equip, I have to know what his answers to my plays are. If I equip the Mystic and attack and am answered in some way I will be behind quite a ways in tempo, and it is not hard to imagine that snowballing into a loss. With two islands and a Tectonic Edge untapped, his possible answers, as I thought of them were Into the Roil, Dismember, Vapor Snag, and Steel Sabotage. There may be other answers, but those were the ones that occurred to me.
3) How likely is he to have an answer?
Many decks at the moment are playing with multiple Into the Roils to deal with the Deceiver Exarch-Splinter Twin combo as well as Sworded creatures, which makes this the most likely answer. Most lists I have seen so far are playing with three, which means that one in twenty cards would answer. He had his opening hand of six cards, three draw phases, and a Preordain, which means he has seen twelve cards so far this game, giving him a slightly better than even chance of having drawn an Into the Roil.
Dismember is a colorless, cheap answer to most problems, but the four life lost represents a significant chunk of life, making running more than one or two a serious liability. This is a more likely answer if he is a manascrewed CawBlade than either Grand Architect or UR Twin because Caw can gain the life back with Batterskull, but I have no way to know which he is playing at the moment. Dismember would be at most a two-of, meaning one in thirty cards, so after having seen twelve cards he has slightly better than one in three odds to have a Dismember.
Vapor Snag hasn't seen any play yet, but it could serve as Into the Roil number five if that was needed. It can't answer a Jace, but it can bounce a Sworded creature or Deceiver Exarch in a pinch. I would not expect to see any in the later rounds, but this is round one and at this point I still am not sure what my opponent is playing or how good he is. For all I know he could have a playset. Four cards in sixty is one in fifteen, giving him an almost 100% chance to have one after seeing twelve cards.
Steel Sabotage is another card that hasn't seen any play in winning decklists and I would not expect to see in the finals, but again, this is the first round against an unknown opponent.
If he had played a Seachrome Coast or Mountain or was a player I knew I would have a better idea of what I was playing against and could narrow it down some, but without more information there are a plethora of possible answers.
4) What happens if he does have an answer?
Suppose I do take the riskier play of equipping the Mystic, leaving only one mana untapped, and then attacking. If he is holding an answer and plays it, I have to consider what my board position will look like. The most likely answer is Into the Roil for my Stoneforge Mystic, which leaves me with one mana untapped and no pressure. The nightmare scenario after that is if he is holding a Jace, the Mind Sculptor, a land, and doesn't think I have a Spell Pierce. If he thinks I am holding Spell Pierce casting Jace is clearly a bad idea, but most likely he will correctly read me for no Spell Pierce and play the Jace. On my next turn I can either Into the Roil the Jace or replay my Mystic, or hopefully both if I rip a fourth land (and it comes into play untapped). If I don't rip a land or I rip a land and it comes into play tapped I will have to choose between Roil and Mystic. If I play the Mystic again I will only have one mana untapped, leaving me open to anything he resolves with up to five mana available. He could start fatesealing me away from lands, bounce my Mystic to keep me from applying pressure, or brainstorm into more action--none of these go well for me. If I mainphase the Into the Roil he can just replay the Jace, leaving me in the same situation. I could also pass the turn back, leaving up my three mana. Doing this instead of replaying my Mystic will broadcast loud and clear that I am holding a counterspell or bounce, but it may be necessary to give that information away. Waiting to Into the Roil at the end of his turn lets me keep open my Mana Leak if necessary, but it also means that he could just counter my Into the Roil because he got to untap.
He could also be playing the UR Twin deck. If so he has all the possibility of CawBlade I ran through above, plus the possibility he plays a Deceiver Exarch and threatens lethal at any point later in the game. Without a red source in play I am not worried about him simply winning on his turn, but having Exarch in play will severely limit my options for the rest of the game.
Basically, I'm screwed.
I chose to just attack for one, leaving all my mana untapped. He looked a little surprised and glanced at his hand when I attacked for one which indicated to me he did have an answer. He drew a card, played a Mountain (almost surely telling me he was UR Twin), and said go. I ripped a Plains and played it, giving me four mana, and ran through the possibilities again. This time I chose to equip because even if he bounced it or otherwise answered I could Mana Leak back if desired, or just replay the Mystic while still holding up my Leak. He tapped out for Into the Roil kicked, I Mana Leaked, untapped with the Sword's trigger, played a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and fatesealed in second main, and won shortly thereafter.
Second round I beat UW CawBlade, followed by a loss to UW CawBlade, a win against Valakut, then ID with Valakut into the top eight at 3-1-1 with the best tiebreakers of any nine pointer. None of those games played out terribly unexpectedly - I beat the UW CawBlade player that misplayed several times, lost to the UW CawBlade player when I forgot he had an Inkmoth Nexus and punted a game away, and beat Valakut when I stuck and protected a Mirran Crusader long enough to go the distance.
For the foreseeable future, this is the list I will be running:
[deckbox did="a74" size="small" width="567"]
The biggest thing in this list's favor is that it is not the mainstream list. This is not the lastest brew from Patrick Chapin, it doesn't have any changes Brian Kibler would recommend, and it isn't the list PVDDR just won the GP with. In a world where lists and technology are distributed as easily as ours, this is quite a large plus in my book. Everyone can see the lists from recent articles by the best in the game or last week's tournaments, which makes playing an exact duplicate a risky proposition. You wouldn't hand your opponent your decklist on paper before the match started (well, maybe you would, but you shouldn't) so why would you play an exact copy of last week's popular list? Giving away information like that might not hurt, if you are playing against someone that doesn't stay up with the current lists, last week's tournament winners etc, but it can't help. Playing your own brew, however, can let you attack from a surprising angle or have an unexpected answer to steal a game. PVDDR had one Consecrated Sphinx in his CawBlade last week, and won the GP. The Sphinx, while powerful, is not terribly difficult to play around if you know it's there. If you know that a bomb like the Sphinx might show up you can build your game around it and be prepared, but imagine the surprise on people's faces when they thought they were winning and suddenly Paulo tapped six mana to start drawing three cards a turn, blocking any Squadron Hawks with Sword of War and Peace in the process.
If you are playing against someone you know has PVDDR's list tomorrow I bet you'll hold onto that last Mana Leak like your life depended on it.
Think about that.
Playing with a list that a name Pro recommended or that won a large tournament last week has several advantages, mostly that you know it is pretty close to polished. There aren't going to be any terrible card choices, none of the numbers are going to be too curious, and so on. It is a finished product, ready to be taken out of the box and played with.
Sometimes, however, they can lead you astray. The Pros are called Pros for a reason--they're better than you and me. Sometimes they win even though they had their deck, not because. At the recent SCG Invitational, for example, Michael Jacob said that he hated his Natural Order RUG deck and sideboarded out the Orders and the Progenitus every single match. Patrick Sullivan disliked his Steppe Lynxes and said they were a mistake to play. Both of them made the top eight of the SCG Invitational not because they had perfectly tuned decks but because they were skilled enough players they could win even with slightly weaker decks. They had been focusing on other tournaments or formats and didn't have enough time to perfect their lists, ran what they had, and played their way to a winning record despite their handicaps. If someone just looked at the Top Eight decklists they would see Michael Jacob's NO RUG and Sullivan's Zoo and think those were reasonable decks to take to their next tournaments and recommended by pros, which is inaccurate.
Another example would be the TurboFog deck that came out during Jund's reign after Worlds (I think). The goal of the deck was to mill an opponent out of cards with Font of Mythos, Jace Beleren and Howling Mine while staying alive with various Fog effects. After posting a 6-0 record it was being hailed as an answer to the Jund menace...until it turned out that despite playing in a room with 65% Jund, the pilot, Joel Calafell, had not played against a single Jund player in six rounds. In fact, it had a pretty miserable matchup against Jund. Anyone that had missed that detail and only heard about the initial hype would have been in for a rude surprise at their next tournament.
Given the damage giving information to an opponent can do and the possible pitfalls of playing a stock list, I prefer to play lists that are a little off the beaten path whenever possible, or at least have my thumbprint. Not playing either Splinter Twin or Stoneforge Mystic at the moment seems just foolish, but that doesn't mean that no avenues for innovation are available.
Go brew up something spicy.