Right now, the MTG world is abuzz with excitement for the coming of Innistrad. With the full set released on the Mothership, we’ve seen what double-faced cards and the flavorful drippings of the Innistrad world have brought us. The power level of the set has been reined in considerably from the previous Scars block, and it’s almost a joke compared to the insanity Zendikar brought to the forefront. With the rotation this set, it will still see significant play, but there are no Steppe Lynxes or Goblin Guides to be had here. No Lotus Cobras with fetch lands or other such absurdity.
This has some advantages; instead of trying to trump the previous set from the older cards, you can instead design around the flavor and put in more interesting ways to increase the power level. Mayor of Avabruck and Reckless Waif are perfect examples of cards that rely a bit on variance, but which can be self-triggered for a major boost in power. Unfortunately for many people, Tempered Steel destroys all of your hopes and dreams by being a consistent and quick beatdown deck. For everyone else, you get a nice baseline to base your expectations around, which may not sound like a good thing, but believe me, it helps to have some idea of what works and what doesn’t before showing up at a tournament or buying a whole deck.
Remember that there is no Valakut or Splinter Twin that consistently kills you on turn five—all your early kill cycles will revolve around creatures, and that’s the one path you need to defend against. With the additional spot-removal available in Standard, it becomes far simpler to stop Tempered Steel and Red from running roughshod over you in the early game—assuming you respect the deck enough to run those cards. This is my main problem with many of the W/U Caw-replacement decks I see—none of them can deal with the fundamental issue of getting raced unless they draw one of their three to five spot-removal spells. Players tend to overlook why Caw was such a dominant deck, and they instead boil it down to silly reasons like, “Play a lot of flying 1/1’s with Swords” or try to replicate the smoothing of Preordain with Ponder and no shuffle effects. Turns out Doomed Traveler and a slightly better Master's Call aren’t necessarily the answers you’re looking for.
Right now, I can’t see a way to replicate the multi-tool approach to things that Caw had; instead, you’ll be playing something closer to Hero-Blade, but with even less defense. So when rebuilding W/U, you need to ask yourself two questions:
- Can I stop Tempered Steel from racing me?
- Can I beat up decks revolving around grinding and 6-drops?
If you want to go a bit further, you could also add to the list the ability to beat a Birthing Pod chain; however, I don’t want to overspecialize too much without seeing the metagame first. As for my own conditions, Tempered Steel was the best deck in Block and a reasonable choice in Standard, with only the additions of Ornithopter and Steel Overseer. Another option could be some sort of draw-go with much better spot-removal than Scars block and powerful 6-drops in addition to Consecrated Sphinx (which was the only one worth using in Block).
To answer question #1, we need to look at Block primarily, and not Standard, for our answers to how much defense is enough in our deck. This may sound odd, since Standard would logically have more powerful defenses and a “better” version of Steel. What many players don’t realize is that Steel was shoehorned into the aggressive role in every single match in Standard, and it was barely fast enough to race opposing strategies when met with resistance. With decks like Valakut and Splinter Twin available to people, Steel couldn’t adapt very much in the way of resilience, or else it would be left behind in too many important matches.
Just look at the difference between two successful tournament builds of Tempered Steel.
"Tempered Steel, played by Luis Scott-Vargas (Top 8 in PT: Nagoya 2011)"
- Creatures (20)
- 3 Blade Splicer
- 4 Hero of Bladehold
- 4 Leonin Relic-Warder
- 1 Vault Skirge
- 4 Memnite
- 4 Signal Pest
Fast-forward to today, and look at what the fastest decks in the format are shaping up to be: a significantly softened Mono-Red, Tempered Steel, and perhaps a B/R aggro deck taking advantage of the new Innistrad Vampires and Reckless Waif. No longer does Steel need to focus on being the fastest thing in the room in every match, because it already is with just the core cards. Obviously, we don’t want to copy the Block or Standard decks card for card, even if no Innistrad or M12 cards are added, simply because the metagame is different.
"Ari Lax – Top 64 at GP: Pittsburgh"
- Spells (19)
- 2 Dismember
- 4 Dispatch
- 4 Tempered Steel
- 3 Shrine of Loyal Legions
- 4 Glint Hawk Idol
- 2 Mox Opal
Both builds of Steel are configured to be able to beat sweepers and have very few do-nothings in the main deck. The majority of Standard Steel builds had Ornithopter, and you’ll notice that it was replaced with a card that’s purely trying to keep Tempered Steel and other valuable artifacts alive. In the Block build LSV presents, Blade Splicer and Hero of Bladehold take center stage, and they aren’t even affected by the namesake of the deck! You can’t just expect to Day of Judgment an early rush of 0’s and 1’s and have that carry the day—not when Shrine of Loyal Legions, Hero of Bladehold, and Inkmoth Nexus pay off patience so well.
If you want to play W/U, you’ll need a real plan. If you want to run three to four Day of Judgment and a few Oblivion Rings to handle your affairs, perhaps a Divine Offering or two in the main deck isn’t out of place. It kills most of Steel’s creatures, including Glint Hawk Idol and Inkmoth Nexus, plus Birthing Pod and Swords. If you don’t want to be that narrow, Dismember is a valid option, but paying 4 life against Steel is a significant investment, so multiples aren’t encouraged. To have a good chance Game 1, depending on your creature makeup, I would say a minimum of eight to nine removal spells* would be a good starting point.
* Note: To run the minimum and still maintain effectiveness, you may be leaning toward narrower removal spells.
I think the bare minimum I would run and still expect to have a chance against a good Steel draw is something like: 2 Ratchet Bomb, 2 Day of Judgment, 3 Oblivion Ring, 2 Dismember, and I’d like a singleton Divine Offering.
The split of Wrath effects is necessary, because Day of Judgment hogging your mana can cause major problems, and Ratchet Bomb can either ramp up to kill Idol or Steel, or stay at zero counters the entire game to shut off Shrine of Loyal Legions, Blade Splicer, and Hero of Bladehold. Instant-speed spot-removal is absolutely needed to deal with Inkmoth and Idol, or you risk losing to temporary creatures. Not to mention the fact that it gives you a way around tapping out every single turn in the end-game.
So before I do anything else in my W/U deck, I know that I’ll have at least the following:
Ten slots, and I haven’t even touched the core of the deck yet. Perhaps this isn’t the easy retrofit people are making this out to be. Moving onto my next issue, I need to figure out how aggressive I want to be with my deck, and how defensive-minded my creatures can afford to be. If my expected metagame is something like Steel, Red, U/B control (Draw-Go or Reanimator), U/W control, Hero-Blade, and Birthing Pod (G/W, Bant, or anything else), being aggressive looks reasonable in most of these matches. And, in fact, the best anti-control creatures are actually at the 3- and 4-CMC slots and not sitting in Titan range. For a more controlling build, Blade Splicer will be a fine addition and blocks better than the majority of creatures available. If we want to beat down, Geist of Saint Traft and Mirran Crusader jump up the list and will help offset the lack of late-game finishers and card-draw. Assuming, for the moment, you’d prefer the aggressive role in many of these matches, I’d look to be adding some of both to the list.
Which one you choose depends on how much you like Geist of Saint Traft—both cards are immune to the most common spot-removal spells, but Mirran Crusader can attack through Green, Black, or X/2 creatures with no assistance. Geist is the exact opposite, where any random blocker is going to trade with it in combat, with the trade-off being you still get to Hell's Thunder for 4. While I want to run both, I prefer Mirran Crusader in the majority of my expected matches. This could change as the metagame develops, but based on what I expect it to be, I feel that Crusader is the better card in all but one of the above matches.
This loose grouping is a good starting place for an aggressive W/U strategy that isn’t going to rely heavily on Sword of Feast and Famine to carry the day. In fact, Sword of War and Peace is likely a better card in the expected metagame. . . . Just a thought.
So, the really arguable slots have been laid out for a more aggressive build. What are we missing after creatures and removal spells? Well, Gideon Jura is one of the best planeswalkers left in the format, so let’s use him, along with Sword of War and Peace and Mana Leak. Oh, and I guess drawing cards would be a nice throw-in, so the question then becomes if we have room for Snapcaster Mage, Divination, or Think Twice.
With only nine spells in the deck and only three slots remaining, Snapcaster Mage won’t make the cut for this version. On a similar note, I can’t see wanting to tap out on turns three through five to slam a Divination onto the table, so, by default, we have Think Twice as our small-ball draw card. You could choose to ignore all draw completely until you hit Sphinx mana, but having some amount of manipulation really is nice to have. All that remains is to slap the requisite lands together, and we’re done with a first draft!
2 Consecrated Sphinx
4 Hero of Bladehold
4 Mirran Crusader
2 Geist of Saint Traft
3 Gideon Jura
1 Divine Offering
3 Think Twice
4 Mana Leak
2 Day of Judgment
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Ratchet Bomb
3 Sword of War and Peace
1 Moorland Haunt
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Seachrome Coast
Not exactly the powerhouse I was hoping to have staring back at me, but one with some actual options against Steel and Pod decks. What I’ve been finding is that it’s very difficult to justify small creatures plus Swords when people are packing far more LD and spot-removal in their decks. The problem with people running cards like Midnight Haunting is that they just don’t do enough without assistance, and their best-case scenarios aren’t any better than other best-case scenarios. The only time they feel better are when additional cards are brought into the mix, and then suddenly you have four 1/1 flyers, thanks to Snapcaster Mage, and then you show them the Sword, and they scoop.
And that’s the other issue that nobody seems willing to talk about—in many cases, a Sword hit doesn’t end the game, because the current-generation W/U doesn’t have the cards available to pull a huge lead from a successful strike. The best you can do is slamming a Gideon Jura on the field, and while that’s a strong play, you most certainly didn’t need the Sword for that to happen. The mana advantage you net from a SOFAF hit just isn’t the same when you aren’t taking full advantage of it with Squadron Hawk or additional planeswalker cards. It does help Snapcaster Mage out, but there’s nothing truly amazing to be had when hitting with a Sword already should put you far ahead!
I understand that this is the norm for any new format: trying a lot of new shiny cards out and taking advantage of the lack of refinement every deck has. At some point, though, you need a benchmark so that you can get some perspective, and I think once people have sample games against Tempered Steel, they’ll come around on certain card choices. On that note, you don’t need to go an aggressive route with this deck, and you can instead focus on the draw-go board-control route. As long as you can handle creatures and the occasional planeswalker, there are very few angles left to be attacked from in this format.
So, if we wanted to go with an attrition-based W/U strategy, we can remove most of the aggression from the equation and instead focus more on answers and resource-manipulation. Snapcaster Mage suddenly looks a lot more impressive, with spells replacing those creature slots, and we can also use more 6-drops. So, if we drop the non-Sphinx creatures out of the deck, that leaves us with ten slots to use on whatever we please. Sword of War and Peace can also be moved into the sideboard, if it makes the seventy-five at all.
Timely Reinforcements becomes an option, since we aren’t going to be jamming creatures on our early turns, so having two or three main-deck is perfectly reasonable. Snapcaster Mage will definitely make the cut with that addition, just not the full set, because, when drawing multiples, you don’t want them to cannibalize each other. The 2/1 body Tiago comes with just isn’t going to do a lot of work unless you run Swords, and it seems unlikely we’ll keep those main-deck now that our army is gone. I’ll start with three, because he’s a card that will take time to get used to. I’ll consider if I want to drop him to two later.
In the finisher department, it comes down to what we want our from our 6-drop. For pure card advantage, it’s difficult to argue with Consecrated Sphinx numbers three and four. If we want to focus purely on grinding with our existing and used-up resources, Sun Titan and Phantasmal Image become real options. Recurring a Snapcaster Mage to rebuy a removal spell or Timely Reinforcements is tough to beat in terms of value and staying alive. The downside is that Phantasmal Image has lost many of the best targets to copy, so unless you play against Birthing Pod or have a 6-drop in play, it doesn’t gain nearly as much value as it used to. Wurmcoil Engine is better suited for the sideboard, in large part because it takes a while to make a big impact on the game. Plus, being an artifact is not the best right now.
This is where I would start with a draw-go variation.
3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Consecrated Sphinx
3 Gideon Jura
1 Divine Offering
3 Think Twice
4 Mana Leak
3 Day of Judgment
3 Timely Reinforcements
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Ratchet Bomb
1 Moorland Haunt
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Seachrome Coast
You’ll notice that I haven’t listed sideboards for either deck, and that’s because if you don’t do the legwork yourself, I may be giving you bad advice and wrecking your tournament before it begins. I will offer some general advice for cards I’ve liked in my initial testing, and I’ll say that I think you should be overprepared against Tempered Steel versus underprepared. Both Divine Offering and Revoke Existence are all-stars against Tempered Steel and Birthing Pod, and they should be highly valued as spot-removal. Ratchet Bomb is a good catch-all and effective against Tempered Steel, but be aware of overcommitment, since Phyrexian Revoker, Leonin Relic-Warder, and Revoke Existence all shut it down.
Other than those obvious choices, additional hard counters, Timely Reinforcements, and some number of Swords are all reasonable options to have. Perhaps the only nonobvious choice is having the aggro creatures in the sideboard so that you can board into something that isn’t draw-go against opposing control strategies. If you don’t do it, you absolutely need to leave in your sweepers, or you could just be dead to Geist backed by Dismember or other removal. It’s just something to keep in mind, since I’ve definitely lost to 6 a turn coming from Geist before my 6-drop Sphinx came online to salvage things. Usually, once your 6-drops kick in, you’ll win pretty easily, but until that point, you will struggle if you boarded out sweepers.
That’s all for this week. With Innistrad now released, I’ll have a lot more to talk about, so expect more frequent contributions in the future. If you have a question, feel free to e-mail me, and if you don’t get a response, send another one with a different title. Sometimes my spam filter eats e-mails that sound too much like marketing spam. Enjoy Innistrad!
e-mail me at: josh dot silvestri at gmail dot com