It has been a few weeks since my last article. Writer's block has been defeated, however, and I am back. In that time New Phyrexia has become legal for play and has started to affect the metagame. CawBlade has not been removed from its throne at the top of the metagame, and as long as it stays in place every deck will have to be measured against it. The addition of the Splinter Twin-Deceiver Exarch combo to the metagame has enabled a number of various shells around the combo to emerge, Spellskite has reduced the effectiveness of targeted removal somewhat, and Sword of War and Peace has added a new kink to the CawBlade mirror.
With the exception of the new combo deck, however, the new metagame is very similar to the metagame before rotation. Edgar Flores won the first SCG Open with NPH legal with a UW CawBlade list that looked very similar to the pre-rotation lists. In this metagame there are a number of cards that are being underplayed, in my opinion.
Phyrexian Revoker is live against almost every tier one deck. Against CawBlade it can turn off a Jace to rob them of their card advantage, Gideon Jura to protect your creatures and allow you to attack, or Tumble Magnet to force a creature wearing a sword through. Against Twin-Exarch in any form it is a proactive problem that has to be answered before they can win (just remember to name Deceiver Exarch, not Splinter Twin), and it can answer a Fauna Shaman from Vengevine decks even if you are on the draw, and most importantly - it is maindeckable. It might not be the best answer to any of the problems, but it can answer many of the problems of today's metagame better than anything else. Vampire Hexmage or Hex Parasite may get rid of problem planeswalkers more permanently, Torpor Orb can be a larger thorn in the side of a Twin-Exarch Combo player because they have fewer maindeck answers, and Lightning Bolt or Oust are better answers to an early Fauna Shaman, but none of those are as easily maindeckable in any deck as the Revoker is.
Phyrexian Revoker is clearly vulnerable as a 2/1, but it has several things going for it making its one toughness less of a liability than before the rotation. First and most importantly, it can be protected from harm by Spellskite. Spellskite can also fit into any deck that wants to play it, allowing any deck to run Revoker as an answer to problems and Spellskite to protect it. Second, aggressive, particularly red, decks are going to drop in popularity for two reasons-the fact that Batterskull and Sword of War and Peace are going to be staples in every deck playing Stoneforge Mystic, and they can't race the Twin-Exarch combo decks. More slow decks and fewer aggressive decks means that not only will Phyrexian Revoker have more good targets, but it will also face off against fewer good answers. Another plus in Revoker's column that didn't exist before rotation is the addition of additional equipment in the form of Sword of War and Peace and Batterskull. Both are exellent pieces of equipment that can be maindecked easily and provide additional toughness to the Revoker's otherwise puny rear end. Playing a Revoker before NPH, when the opponent could simply leave a Squadron Hawk or other small creature on defense to stop you from attacking, was worse than Pithing Needle. Now that you can suit him up with any number of appealing options, however, the Revoker can attack and do good business even if the opponent is leaving a creature behind to block.
I have never been a big fan of the leylines, either old or new. Most of them weren't worth the mana cost to play fairly, and weren't worth the cost of a card in hand to play for free if you were lucky enough to have them in your opening hand. Drawing multiples was also a disaster. Leyline of the Void was necessary against some blisteringly fast graveyard-based decks, but that was the exception.
Leyline of Sanctity, however, has slowly gained my love and adoration. It allows you to relax somewhat against Valakut without fear of being shot for a million by a mountain or two entering play, deprives Vampires of its combo finish with Kalastria Highborn + Viscara Seer, and it can also remove most of the sting of a Koth of the Hammer, as more games are lost to his emblem than to attacking 4/4s in my experience.
Most importantly, it can proactively counter any opposing Duress effects. The most popular shells around the Splinter Twin-Deceiver Exarch combo have been Grixis flavored, playing blue to find the combo, black to strip answers from an opponent's hand with some combination of Inquisition of Kozilek, Duress, and Despise, and red just for the Splinter Twin. They can use Gitaxin Probe and their Duress effects to see your hand and remove any answers to their combo, then go off. If you begin the game with Leyline of Sanctity in play, however, they have to go in blind. Leyline isn't an answer by itself but it will protect your answers from being stipped away.
Another impact of the combo deck's emergence is Darkblade has come back into popularity after falling somewhat in favor of UW CawBlade, as Darkblade can play with its own Duresses or Inquisitions of Kozileks to help fight against the combo, which means even more targeted discard running around in the metagame.
Speak of the Devil...
Inquisision of Kozilek is the default targeted discard at the moment, for good reason. While many games can go long, it is not uncommon for games to be decided in the first couple of turns. Stopping an early Pyromancer Ascension, Stoneforge Mystic, or Mana Leak can have a large impact on the game and four Inquisitions should be the first four targeted discard spells in any deck. If more than four card slots are wanted, however, the secondary choice becomes a fight between Despise and Duress.
Despise is certainly powerful, and is the correct choice in many decks. Any deck that is trying to win the long game and is worried about a Jace, the Mind Sculptor on the other side of the board or an early Stoneforge Mystic or Squadron Hawk coming to the party will want Despise. Many people, however, have been switching their Duresses for Despises without a second thought, which is incorrect.
Duress and Despise can both take away any planeswalker. They differ, however, in their other capabilities. Duress is better suited to taking a Mana Leak or other counterspell, while Despise shines when it comes time to take away a creature. This makes Duress better in decks that are more concernded with their spells resolving than with early attackers or late game bombs such as Plated Geopede or Sun Titan.
The deck that come to mind that would prefer Duress to Despise in these circumstances is Grixis-Twin, the combo deck. The combo deck can go off as early as turn four, which should make early attackers such as Stoneforge Mystic or Steppe Lynx less of a concern than for many decks. The most important thing for the combo deck is for its spells to resolve which makes the ability to take a Mana Leak or Spell Pierce quite valuable. Duress can also take away many of the potential answers to the combo that people may begin to play if they get tired of losing non-interactive games on turn four, such as Due Respect, Celestial Purge, Nature's Claim, Vapor Snag, Act of Aggression, or Doom Blade variants.
I could also see wanting Duress in place of Despise in UB lists that wanted to force through a threat more than it wanted to strip away a Stoneforge Mystic. If UB felt confidant in its abilities to survive a Stoneforge or other early threat and wanted to make sure its spells resolved through opposing countermagic it would probably want Duress over Despise. This seems better suited to a slightly more aggressive strategy than the lists that more closely resemble the grind-em-out style of slow control UB from Worlds.
I recently played the following list to success, based on this strategy:
I built this deck in the car on my way to a tournament. I was going to spend the night after playing FNM, then play om the real thing on Saturday - which was sealed, so I wasn't worried about having the perfect seventy-five before I left. I started working on it because I wanted to be as aggressive as possible to fight against the Twin-Exarch decks while still playing a blue deck.
I actually played with Despise over Duress, but I realized halfway through the first round that I had chosen poorly and it should have been Duress. With seven manlands and two swords to beef them up, on top of the playset of Persecutors and a game-ending Geth, I was significantly more aggressive than most blue decks and taking away an early counterspell to ensure my Persecutors would resolve would have been more useful than stripping away a creature. I didn't care nearly as much about most early creatures as most decks did because I could quickly trump them with a Persecutor.
Mirran Crusader hits capital-H Hard. It comes down early and has an immediate impact on combat math, more so than any three-drop since Knight of the Reliquary. You remember how bonkers she was? The comparison is made slightly weaker by the fact the Crusader is smaller and has doublestrike while the Knight was generally fatter. There are many situations where a 4/4 is preferable to a 2/2 with doublestrike, such as if the opponent is holding a Lightning Bolt or has a 3/3 creature, but in current standard I believe the 2/2 doublestrike is better. As I have already said, Twin-Exarch combo is going to have a large impact on the metagame simply by existing, even if it isn't dominant. Many aggressive decks are going to fall away because they are not fast enough to race, which means fewer Lightning Bolts running around, and DarkBlade will become more popular because it can play with targeted discard to fight the combo as well as Doom Blade/Go for the Throat effects. With fewer damage-based removal spells around and more black targeted spells in the metagame the Crusader is ready to shine as its lack of toughness will be relevant less often and its protection from black status will confound control decks more than before NPH's release.
Another strike against the Crusader in the past was that it was easy for it to be blocked all day by a series of Squadron Hawks until an answer could be drawn or a Gideon could resolve and -2 it away. As the hipsters say, however, that was SO last week. In today's world we get to play with Sword of War and Peace, allowing a Crusader to become virtually untouchable and nigh unblockable, and many are following Edgar Flores' lead and cutting Gideons from their CawBlade lists.
...Have you ever equipped a Double Strike creature with a Sword of either War and Peace or Feast and Famine, or a Batterskull?
It is just as hilarious and game-ending as it sounds, I assure you.
This one is purely theoretical.
Spreading Seas was a four-of in every deck with blue mana not long ago, but it went the way of the dodo when the control decks began dying off and playing Stoneforge Mystic. When decks were playing four manlands, two or three Titans, and Jaces as their win conditions a Spreading Seas could represent a significant dent in their capability to win in addition to being an early color-hoser and cantrip. The threat of a Stoneforge coming down on the opposite side of the field on turn two, however, has recently made spending your second turn turning an opponent's land into an Island seem like a poor choice.
So why should it come back to favor now? People are still playing Stoneforge, aren't they?
Yes, and it is possible there isn't enough room in decks for Spreading Seas to make a comeback, but if the metagame unfolds in the coming weeks the way I am expecting it to then the Sinkhole Cycler could become the new hot tech. Again.
The most popular flavor of Twin-Exarch is Grixis, playing red almost or entirely exclusively for Splintertwin. Splashing for a card that costs double mana can be tricky, and removing a red souce from them could slow them down significantly.
If DarkBlade does surpass UW CawBlade in poplarity it will also be vulnerable to pseudo manadenial. Even if their capability to cast their spells is unaffected, "destroying" a Creeping Tar Pit can have a huge impact on the game due to its unblockable status and the devastating effect a Tar Pit with a Sword can have on the game.
Spreading Seas is never a dead draw, even if it isn't the perfect draw, and turning off a manland or Tectonic Edge can be quite powerful for such a cheap cost. Toss in that it cantrips and my expectation for more three colored decks to start popping up and you have the potential for an unexpected superstar to emerge.
I am always brewing and tweaking, attempting to stay one week ahead of the metagame. These cards may not be the right choices in two weeks, but they are all underrated and off the radar at the moment which can allow you to catch an opponent unawares. Playing with last week's deck at this week's tournament won't always cost you, but it can, and playing with powerful cards that an opponent is not used to playing against and doesn't have a sideboard plan for can allow you to steal games you have no right winning.
With that in mind, here is the deck I will be playing in my $500 tournament later today (as I write this it is seven in the morning, tournament day):
I started work on this deck after the tournament where I played Abyssal Persecutors, trying to think of another way to stay aggressive while playing with Stoneforge Mystic. The addition of the combo deck to the format has made playing a true control deck impossible in my eyes because it is too hard to protect against all the angles an opponent may attack you from, which means I want to end the game as quickly as possible (while still playing Jace, of course. Why would I ever not play Jace?) I decided to cut the Squadron Hawks for the Sparkmages because the Hawks seemed the would be less able to hold an opponent's Sworded creature at bay than in the past and Sparkmages could shoot down anything that wasn't carrying a Sword of War and Peace. The Phyrexian Revokers went in as a proactive, aggressive answer to many of the questions of the format today, and once I was playing with Revokers and Sparkmages as my answers it made sense to cut any sweepers to avoid killing off my own guys.
You have no idea how depressed I got when I realized it was not *that* innovative a brew, but was basically an updated SparkBlade. I played the deck for the first time in a tournament to a 5-0 finish in FNM earlier, but in a few hours it will be given its first true test.
Wish me luck,
Food for thought:
What would you play for lands if you were running this, and why? I don't think the mana is by any means perfect, just close enough to fake it at the moment. I have considered cutting a Glacial Fortress for the fourth Seachrome Coast to make sure the early drops come in untapped and allow the deck the stay aggressive, but felt a mix may be correct.
Is the one Inkmoth for one more Sword-able creature just too greedy?
Another change I have considered is cutting the two Gideons for Tumble Magnets. This would lower the curve significantly, cutting the highest costing cards and filling out the curve at the three spot, making the change from Glacial Fortress number two to Seachrome Coast number four make even more sense. Thumbs up or thumbs down?
One of the most recent and agonizing decisions I made was cutting a package of two Trinket Mages and a Hex Parasite for the three Spellskites. The Mages allowed additional ways to search for the Basilisk Collar, allowing the deck to sidestep sometimes awkward plays like Stoneforging for Collar instead of a Sword. The Hex Parasite was also quite good against Tumble Magnets--the fact it could kill Jaces as well was just icing on the cake. Is this a good change? Can something else be cut to make room? If the Mages go back in are there any other tutor targets that should go in with them?
On a scale from Very to Super Duper, exactly how awesome is hitting someone with a Batterskulled-and-Sworded Double Stiker? (don't answer that one until you've done it)