When you look at a card like Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, at first glance, it seems like a very fair card. It seems like the kind of card that benefits a game plan designed to grind someone out; as long as you can make it to the late game, your Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle will give you inevitability.
Then M11 happened!
There are lots of legitimate gripes about the Titan cycle. They’re pretty overpowered, they’re completely lacking in skill-intensity, and they discourage you from working with any of the flavorful fatties in, say, Scars block, because the Titans themselves are so much faster, lower-variance, and higher-impact.
The worst Titan, on paper, is definitely Primeval Titan. All the other Titans do something to generate either card advantage or board advantage. Sure, I guess you could technically count adding two lands as board advantage, but lands are generally lower-impact than, say, two 2/2 Zombies.
Did I make where I’m going with this obvious enough?
The synergy between Primeval Titan and a land-matters block, one that includes a non-Legendary land that gives you Lightning Bolts every time you put more land into play, is pretty obvious. Between all the mana-acceleration in Zendikar block (Khalni Heart Expedition, Explore, Harrow) and the one ramp spell Green always gets in the core set (either Cultivate or Rampant Growth), turn-four Primeval Titans in a deck dedicated to blow you out with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle aren’t uncommon.
What sets Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks apart from any other combo deck in the history of Magic is how little the combo interacts with the format it’s in. The best cards against Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks are generally Tectonic Edge and countermagic. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that all the decent countermagic in Standard right now comes with a “unless you pay X” clause. As a ramp deck, you’ll always be able to pay that X eventually. If your opponent is not tapping out, he’s playing just slowly enough to be able to be ground out by Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. If he’s tapping out for stuff, you get to resolve a turn-four Primeval Titan and go to town. Even if he Terrors it, you just grabbed two Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. God forbid he counters it—hello, Summoning Trap!
The frustrating thing about playing against Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle decks is that they’re not terribly skill-intensive. The deck just seems to operate on autopilot. You play ramp spells, and you jam Titans until you win. It seems that the only decisions involved in playing the deck are mulliganing choices, in which order to play your lands, and what lands to search for with your ramp spells. The deck is also pretty high-variance; while it does have a lot of inevitability, it also plays somewhere around twenty-eight lands—more than enough to ensure some crappy draws or, worse still, mulligans to oblivion.
Still, not since Arcbound Ravager/Affinity has a deck been so user-friendly, so forgiving of its pilot’s mistakes, that as an opponent, you actively wonder if the game you’re playing was determined before you even sat down. Me, I’m not comfortable playing a deck like that most of the time, but it certainly does a good job of preying on the unprepared, as well as rogue deck designers who are all too willing to shove their heads in the sand every time Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle comes up in matchup conversations.
A ramp deck with a built-in combo component basically guarantees that you’re doing better things than any midrange deck could ever dream of. The fact that the built-in combo component is based on a land makes it exceptionally invulnerable to control decks; it might be the slowest grind of your life, but you’ve still got that inevitability.
Simply put, Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Primeval Titan together put a huge design crimp on the current Standard format. Control decks have to have a sideways-8 amount of countermagic. If they really care about the matchup, you’ll usually find at least three, if not, four Flashfreezes in the sideboard. This leaves other midrange decks with Green or Red in them as unwitting victims of circumstance. Plus, the fact that a control player has to essentially start designing eleven- to twelve-card sideboards, as opposed to the full fifteen, probably isn’t a sign of format health. Aggro decks have to come out of the gate fast and furious, and hope they don’t run into one of the many Pyroclasm effects in the format. Don’t even get me started on Green Sun's Zenith for Overgrown Battlement/Obstinate Baloth. Midrange decks that aren’t based around Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle will always be doing something worse than the decks that are. They’ll lose every time.
Back in the days of Kamigawa + Ravnica Standard, when I owned all the cards I could ever want because I was in high school and spending money on alcohol hadn’t occurred to me yet, I always brewed my FNM deck that Friday afternoon at my friend Eli’s house. I’d roll a d6, and that would determine how many colors I was to play. Then I’d grab five cards, one of each color, shuffle them up, and take out X cards, X being the number of colors I’d rolled. Once my colors were determined, I’d start brewing. It was fun! The prohibitive combo decks I had to worry about at that point were Greater Good decks and Heartbeat of Spring decks. You’ll notice that both those cards are enchantments, permanents that are easily dealt with. It’s probably worth noting that if I didn’t pull White or Green as a color, I still had Stone Rain and Demolish, Blackmail and Distress, and countermagic—all decent ways to deal with traditional combo decks.
Now, that exercise is pointless, at least, to me, anyway; while Standard is a fun format to play, it’s always going to be crimped by Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Discard and countermagic could do the trick, but I already played U/B control. Red doesn’t have any efficient land-destruction other than Tectonic Edge, and that card isn’t even Red. Green and White can’t do much other than sit on their hands.
I like FNM. For the most part, people there like me. For the most part, I like them back. But I have no problem being selfish here—the games have to be a constructive use of time for me. This project, to me, is a fun way of testing out different decks against a random field, a random mix of old players and new players, every week.
No one gets to tell someone how to enjoy Magic. Magic is too big and, frankly, too fucking awesome, to conform to one philosophy. Casual Johnny, Competitive Spike, Weirdo Vorthos . . . there’s enough room for everyone. None is better than the other. No one gets to tell the rest how they’re supposed to interact with Magic.
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but FNM is a strange beast, if only because it combines a learning environment with prize support. What sets FNM apart from something like a PTQ is that FNM isn’t supposed to be full of sharks. Again, the prize payout reflects this. However, it’s reasonable to concede that if you’re gonna make people pay an entry fee, there are gonna be some people who just wanna win. I should’ve been more patient with Tim last week, but that doesn’t absolve him of needing to know how the combat step works. I didn’t realize he didn’t know, if only because our games were really close and, during the match, I couldn’t bring myself to realize that someone who didn’t fully understand how the combat step worked was giving me such a run for my money. Hindsight is 20/20: Obviously, he didn’t fully know the rules. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to explain them to him.
For this week’s exercise, I chose to run the Splinter Twin deck that won the Standard portion of SCG: Boston.
4 Deceiver Exarch
1 Twisted Image
2 Into the Roil
2 Mana Leak
2 Mental Misstep
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Splinter Twin
4 Shrine of Piercing Vision
2 Arid Mesa
2 Halimar Depths
2 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Azure Mage
3 Grim Lavamancer
1 Mental Misstep
2 Mutagenic Growth
I played a lot of U/R Splinter Twin leading up to SCG: Baltimore, and I just didn’t like this list at all. It seemed that all your turns would just be casting do-nothing cantrips. It wasn’t at all controlling, and wasn’t able to ever be proactive thanks to the absence of Tectonic Edge.
The traditional logic behind U/R Splinter Twin is that you have inevitability. You can win whenever you want. Your Mana Leaks are in place to buy you more time than you’d normally have, and the Spell Pierces (that, admittedly, should’ve always been Dispels) are there to protect your combo when you go off.
This build always assumes you’re under the gun from the get-go, and spends its time ratcheting up a Shrine of Piercing Vision until you’ve somehow found enough mana through all the fetches to go off with the appropriate amount of Dispels backing you up. I guess the fact that you’ve cut Mana Leaks makes the “under-the-gun” assumption make sense, but what are you cutting them for? More cantrips? Bleh. It’s just not how I prefer to play it, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
I really wanted the Grim Lavamancers to be main-deck. I boarded them in every match, and it really seemed like if you’re gonna be running eight fetch lands, thus stunting how many lands you have in play by that much, you need to make it worth it and stick those Grim Lavamancers in the main deck.
Round 1, I play against Level 1 judge and benefactor Jason Corrigan. He loaned me more cards this week, including three Dispels, three Shrine of Piercing Vision, and four fetches. I can’t say I love playing against people I borrowed half my deck from; it always makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
[My discomfort also came from watching him goldfish before the tournament started; he was playing what looked like an awesome deck: five-color, aided by fetch lands and Prophetic Prism. Praetor's Grasp looked like the best card ever printed.]
Game 2, he keeps another two-lander, and it is even less close than the first one. I feel bad about the win, but Jason is gracious in defeat and assures me I don’t have to worry about it.
As our match ends, my friend Bryant is playing next to me against a kid. Bryant is playing mono-Red, and when he finally wins his match, the kid is really down about it. Bryant makes no effort to make the kid feel any better, so I tell the kid that if he wants to feel better, he should ask Bryant about the time that his roommate slept with this girl he really liked, because sometimes you need to take your friends down a peg.
Clearly, I was to be paired against Bryant Round 2.
Earlier in the week, we had both overheard some random regular at the shop mention how U/R Splinter Twin vs. mono-Red was a joke matchup, U/R Splinter Twin should be able to win easily. I can see how that’s the impression someone can get on paper, but sometimes, you just don’t have the turn-five combo with Dispel/Mental Misstep backup.
Game 1, he hit Goblin Guide on turn one and a Shrine of Burning Rage on turn two while I was tapped out. I kept digging and digging, and I was able to Mental Misstep a Grim Lavamancer before he found another Goblin Guide and made short work of me.
After the game, Bryant is kind enough to let me know that he top-decked his turn-one Goblin Guide; it wasn’t in his opener.
Game 2 sees me start off with a turn-one Grim Lavamancer, as well as Mental Misstepping the Goblin Guide Bryant plays the following turn. I tap out on turn two for a Shrine of Piercing Vision, and things are looking good. Unfortunately, this means the path is clear for Bryant to play his own Shrine: Shrine of Burning Rage.
Shrine of Burning Rage represents a big problem for this deck. It represents two things: another permanent to deal with before you can go off, and a very fast clock. Be it Shrine of Burning Rage, Grim Lavamancer, or even Squadron Hawk—U/R Splinter Twin lists traditionally have problems with cards that both come down early and represent a clock. Caw-Blade’s standard line of play against U/R Splinter Twin is to stick a Squadron Hawk, and ride them to victory. What can U/R Splinter Twin do to stop that? Into the Roil? The plan of 1/1’s for 2 swinging until U/R Splinter Twin just dies seems sketchy on paper, but the fact of the matter is, until a Gitaxian Probe is resolved, U/R Splinter Twin has to respect any and all bluffs, or else risk being caught with its pants around its ankles the few times the opponent actually has it. Squadron Hawk is actually a bigger problem for the newer iterations of U/R Splinter Twin; your own fetch lands are actually very effective at speeding up your opponent’s clock, and since you’re always fetching lands instead of just playing them, it’s hard for you to out-mana your opponent, so you find yourself in a lot of game states where you have five lands, and he has seven or eight lands and a couple Squadron Hawks in play.
Oh, and did I mention how huge a liability Halimar Depths is? Halimar Depths is a card that creates a small advantage for you, but a huge advantage for your opponent: It makes his Tectonic Edges live, and when Caw-Blade starts destroying your lands and you only have five or six in play to begin with, well . . . that’s probably not good for you. These newer versions of U/R Splinter Twin excel at digging for a certain card. Once you have to start digging for two of either a combo component, a land, or a Dispel, the deck comes up very short.
I swear, this line of thinking originally had something to do with the match at hand.
If Squadron Hawk is a problem for U/R Splinter Twin, then Shrine of Burning Rage represents a nightmare. Not only is Shrine of Burning Rage a much faster clock than Squadron Hawk could ever hope to be, it’s also an uncounterable way to kill a Deceiver Exarch in response to a Splinter Twin. There are five ways in the seventy-five I’m playing to deal with an active Shrine of Burning Rage:
I realize I’ve got a lot of cantrips in my deck that dig really far to get to those cards, but it’s important to remember two things. The first is that I’m also probably digging for my combo in any given game as well. The second is that Shrine of Burning Rage has the benefit of being in mono-Red, an extremely fast deck that puts lots of pressure on, and quickly. I don’t exactly have the time to dig for both my combo and insurance that it sticks; I just have to hope they don’t have it.
So we’re still in Game 2. Bryant taps down to 3 open mana for some card that’s escaping me—his Shrine of Burning Rage ticks up to 3 and wouldn’t’ve been able to stop a Deceiver Exarch anyway—and passes the turn. He’s got a Grim Lavamancer in play, but I decide to tap down a Mountain on his end step. My logic here is that I have two Mental Missteps in hand; if he wants to Grim Lavamancer + Lightning Bolt my Deceiver Exarch, I’m just gonna win.
Instead, when I go for it, Bryant casts Combust, a card I’ve forgotten exists. I have another copy of Splinter Twin in hand, so instead of blowing through the two copies of Shrine of Piercing Vision I have in play (1 and 2 counters, respectively) to dig for a Mutagenic Growth, I figure I’ll just dig for another Deceiver Exarch with cantrips and let both Shrine of Piercing Vision get huge. I’m at 17 life at this point. The only threat he has on board is a Grim Lavamancer, and I kill it with my own Grim Lavamancer while he’s tapped out.
A few turns later, I cast a second Grim Lavamancer and pass the turn with 3 mana up. My copies of Shrine of Piercing Vision are at 3 and 4 counters. I haven’t found a Deceiver Exarch yet, but if I keep 3 mana up, he has to respect it. On my end step, he taps out to cast Staggershock on a Grim Lavamancer. I think this is also the point where my Mental Missteps starts singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
I don’t find one.
The game is pretty shitty for me after that—the Staggershock simultaneously picks off both my Grim Lavamancers and makes his Shrine of Burning Rage huge. I have the combo in my hand but no answer to his Shrine of Burning Rage, and a Gitaxian Probe reveals:
Yeah, I didn’t win that game.
Round 3, I’m up against a kid named Duncan. He is on what seems to be a U/W proliferate deck, given that he taps a Seachrome Coast and an Inkmoth Nexus to cast a Thrummingbird on his second turn. The game itself is pretty uneventful—I Dismembered his Inkmoth Nexus and take lots of nonproliferating hits from his Thrummingbird until he plays a Consecrated Sphinx, leaving one Glacial Fortress untapped. I respond to his Consecrated Sphinx by digging eleven cards deep with a Shrine of Piercing Vision. I find a Deceiver Exarch, tap his Glacial Fortress down with it, and cast Splinter Twin on my turn. Not a misclick.
To his credit, Duncan draws two off Consecrated Sphinx the second I draw for the turn. At FNM especially, if my opponent has a Consecrated Sphinx, I usually announce whenever I’m drawing a card—I figure, hey, it’s FNM, why not give my opponent the same luxury he’d have on MTGO? This does lead to problems in the middle of games—sometimes I’ll just forget to announce I’m drawing a card, and since my opponent’s used to me announcing it, he’ll forget to draw—but usually it works out okay. I just straight-up forget to announce to Duncan that I’m drawing a card, and he remembers to draw anyway. This is worth noting because I forget to draw with that stupid card all the time, so props to Duncan.
Also, he admits that while he’s played against the deck before, he never saw the combo coming, which is fine—it’s better that he’s got the fundamentals down now; being able to see my plays and put me on a deck accordingly will certainly come with time.
Game 2, he decides that I get to play first, and I promptly mulligan to five. I still have a turn-one Grim Lavamancer, so I feel like I’m in pretty good shape until he casts a Contagion Clasp, a complete blowout.
I don’t think for five seconds that Duncan put me on bringing in Grim Lavamancer, so I have to wonder why he’d ever, ever, ever keep in Contagion Clasp against me. The only creatures he’d ever be able to target would be his own. His keeping in Contagion Clasp annoyed me a lot, but it turns out to be a nonissue: he draws three Inkmoth Nexuses and a Thrummingbird, and a Gitaxian Probe reveals:
Game 3 goes much better for me. After seeing more of his deck, I’m able to sideboard much better, but it’s a moot point because he’s stuck on three lands. I wait ’til I have a Dispel, and on the turn that he Preordains and plays a Seachrome Coast tapped, I play a Deceiver Exarch and kill him on my turn. He shows me a Flashfreeze and a Celestial Purge to go with his single untapped land.
I ask Duncan why he kept in Contagion Clasp, and he admits that he doesn’t know, which is a little frustrating to me. It’s hard for me to help someone if he can’t track back through his thought processes and acknowledge why he did something. I don’t press the issue; the Contagion Clasp was obviously very good for him.
One clear block in Duncan’s game—and I don’t really think it’s something you can teach, but it’s there in any player who doesn’t have much experience with the game—is lack of patience. I’m not sure if the ability to wait, the willingness to get full value out of all of your cards, is something that can be taught. It really seems like the kind of thing you have to have a feel for, and in my observations, that skill only comes with experience.
Round 4, I play against a familiar dude named Jake. I’ve played Jake once before, at the M12 release tournament. I had a pretty sweet deck that tournament, hits of which included a Frost Titan and a Mind Control. I did not lose to Jake that day.
He asks me if I’m still updating my blog. I’m not sure what he means, but I let him know I’m still writing for GatheringMagic, and that he’ll be able to see his name on the Internet next week if he wants.
Game 1, he shows himself as a G/W deck with Sunpetal Groves, Razorverge Thickets, Squadron Hawks, and Llanowar Elves. He plays a Fauna Shaman, telegraphing Vengevines, so I Dismember it, going to 8, before shit gets too real. A Gitaxian Probe reveals:
Game 2 is much closer. I have a Grim Lavamancer, but by the time I land it, he has a full Squadron of Hawks beating me down. For some strange reason, he puts his Garruk down to 2 counters while I have a Grim Lavamancer in play, just to make a 3/3. I’m able to kill his Garruk and pick off some random 1/1’s before playing my Deceiver Exarch a turn early, just so I could safely go off at 1 life.
I thought the iteration of the deck I played was cute. Dispel and Shrine of Piercing Vision were very awesome, but I didn’t love having few answers to permanents, especially Game 1: two Mana Leaks, two Into the Roils, and a conditional answer in two Dismembers. I guess you can count the Twisted Image as a super-narrow answer to Spellskite. Then again, I could just be playing the deck incorrectly. I’ll be at Pro Tour: Philadelphia, despite not being qualified, and I’m sure I’ll be testing this deck extensively leading up to the weekend, because, despite my initial misgivings, I really like it a lot. If you’re gonna be in town, don’t be afraid to say hi and/or tell me how much you hate these wordy tournament reports.
See you next week.