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52 FNMs – In With The New

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Yeah, I have no idea what to say.

Most people are complaining about Delver of Secrets with Ponder right now, and all I can think about despising at the moment is Champion of the Parish into Gather the Townsfolk. I feel as though I’m on another planet.

This column has served me pretty well as an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific that I can exist on while all the grown-ups talk about things that actually matter. Which is fine with me, I guess—during my brief stint as a podcaster, I filled the niche of the drunkenly detached and carelessly handsome one—but the average FNM metagame comes with its own baggage, which, once I can step away from them and take a deep breath, might not actually be issues at all.

Standard is very, very, very aggressive right now. After this week, I can see now that when I was playing Séance, a lot of my opponents just were very unlucky or I was playing cards that were actually able to capitalize on my opponents’ mistakes. Suffice to say that that was not the case last Friday when I played Elves:

That list comes from reader @pavel_mitov.

Not just R/G aggro and Delver decks are pushing the tempo; mono-white Humans decks, mono-red, and both flavors of Zombie decks also have a fundamental turns of three. Three is when the average draws start putting opponents in the red zone and affecting their decisions.

Insectile Aberration
The problem with this is that the pilots of these hyper-aggressive strategies don’t lose because of mistakes, but instead, they just lose because their draws were sub-average. Some see this aggressiveness as simply presenting threats faster than the opponent, telling them, “Deal with this or you’re dead.” Others see this as Anton Chigurh aggressively sitting across from them and saying, “Hey, I’m going to flip this coin. Heads, I win. Tails, you win,” effectively taking a large chunk of in-game decisions out of either player’s hands with sleek, linear cards and strategies.

The other side to that coin is that there are still decisions there; they’re just different, as are the questions: Can I beat turn-one Delver of Secrets into turn-two Ponder, Delver of Secrets? Should I play this 3-drop that has no enters-the-battlefield ability because Vapor Snag laughs in its face? Is playing control reasonable? Is making my creatures uncounterable with Cavern of Souls really gonna do anything?

It is also worth noting that novice players want to win games despite being novices (crazy, right?), and with very aggressive strategies, they can beat anyone. It’s futile to say that Magic isn’t enjoying the most popularity and mainstream success that it’s had in a while, and while a not-insignificant amount of that is thanks to better advertising and product placement than in the past, I’d say Magic’s boom is in large part thanks to a superior product.

A long time ago, I read an article written by Jamie Wakefield, in the now-defunct TopDeck magazine, about a dialogue between Jamie, Mark Rosewater, and Alan Webster that takes place in a pizza parlor during PT: Chicago 2000. I thought it was an interesting conversation then, and it’s still extremely relevant today—even if it is hilariously dated:

“You know what I think? I think you need to think about the starter-level game. That’s just what casual players like, and there’s no way—no way at all—to move people from there to what Magic has become today. They bear no resemblance to each other. There’s no stepping stone at all from Portal Second Ageto Hatred and Rec-Sur. Starter-level players would be aghast at moving to that type of deck.”“You may not believe it, but our goal really is to get the game focused on big creature combat,” Mark responded. “Lots of fatties and the combat stage actually meaning something.”“Well, you can tell with the Mercadian Masques cards,” Alan said. “That’s a much slower set.”

“The Masques set is the result of people complaining about the Urza block,” Mark explained. “We thought people wanted faster games and better cards, so we gave it to them. Now they say that they want slower games and attack phases, so we’re giving that to them. Eventually, as we learn from our mistakes, the game will be what people want.”

. . . Are we there yet? Are we at that coveted what-people-want point?

We might be.

Anyone with a Twitter account can routinely see the members of the old guard discussing (or complaining, depending on your viewpoint) about how different Magic is now compared to how it was back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the emphasis off spells and onto creatures. These members of the old guard also seek to imply that, now more than ever, Magic is less about deck design and fundamentals and more about correctly identifying and jamming the best cards into one deck. This apparent shift in what matters in Magic is part of what has made Legacy no longer a format for fans of nostalgia, but a mutant stepfather of Modern but with better cards—the spells of a former era with the creatures of the current era.

Changing the rules of combat in M10 and crafting compelling fatties—these ideas take huge strides toward bringing high-level Magic to everyone. The question now is: Is Magic still able to sustain a professional circuit, or did we bring the game down, so to speak, to everyone else?

There is a two-word answer to that question: Channel Fireball. The team puts up alarmingly consistent results in high-level play, and somehow, they manage to do it without needing to put combat damage on the stack. Magic may be alarmingly aggressive right now, but this doesn’t mean that the cream can’t still rise to the top, that the guy who makes the least mistakes can’t win the PTQ, and that a better player can’t capitalize on his lesser opponents’ mistakes.

However, all that shit goes out the window when you’re piloting Elves. Here’s a sneak preview of how all your games against Delver go:

Elvish Archdruid
Opponent (who won the die roll): Seachrome Coast, Delver of Secrets.

You: Forest, Llanowar Elves.

Opponent: Reveal Vapor Snag to Delver of Secrets, Delver of Secrets transforms, attack with Insectile Aberration, Ponder, Island, Delver of Secrets, go.

You: Forest, Elvish Archdruid, go.

Opponent: Reveal Ponder to Delver of Secrets, Delver of Secrets transforms, attack with two Insectile Aberration, Vapor Snag your Elvish Archdruid, Glacial Fortress, go.

You: “Fuck; he’s got Mana Leak.” Forest, Copperhorn Scout, Birds of Paradise, go.

Opponent: End of turn, Gut Shot your Llanowar Elves, Snapcaster Mage, target, Gut Shot, flash back Gut Shot, kill your Copperhorn Scout, untap, draw, attack with everything, you’re at 2, go.

You get the picture.

Put simply by Mike Flores, as can be read here (I highly recommend this article even though it’s Premium):

“ . . . we could talk about Delver's ability to slide under the minimum game threshold effortlessly. He might have laughed off a first turn Stromkirk Noble with a super cheap Gut Shot, and can get back into this game by racing + a well-placed Vapor Snag . . . ”

Caw-Blade was an aggro-control deck, whereas W/U Delver is more tempo-based, but the reasons for these decks’ dominance are very much the same—the two decks attack very aggressively from a shitload of different angles all the while forcing their opponent to play fair, thanks to the threat of Mana Leak. Sure, they might not always have the Mana Leak, but if they do, it’s a blowout.

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to figure out how these two truly dominant decks come to happen, but you can usually point to an underrated card from one block (Stoneforge Mystic, Vapor Snag) interacting with a very powerful card from a separate block (Sword of Feast and Famine, Snapcaster Mage) as the main culprit, aided by a singularly powerful card (Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Delver of Secrets) and excellent card-selection (Preordain, Ponder).

Last Friday, I had a particularly frustrating night with Elves. Going into detail over the matchups seems like a waste of time, so I’ll try to illustrate where Elves fits into the metagame.

Elves is more or less a carryover from the Caw-Blade days of Standard. The engine—Copperhorn Scout, Elvish Archdruid, and Ezuri, Renegade Leader—is intact. Elves used to be the deck that broke Caw-Blade’s balls even though no one ever played it . . . ostensibly because it’s Elves. Caw-Blade’s Spell Pierces became blanks, as did Mana Leaks, and you could always set up your board unmolested to beat a Batterskull while still being able to fight Day of Judgment thanks to Ezuri, Renegade Leader.

These days, the threats and the cards that supplement them are a bit different.

Let’s look at a Naya Birthing Pod deck, as designed by Brian Kibler:

Vapor Snag
All the 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-drop threats in the deck (excluding Vorapede) have some sort of enters-the-battlefield ability that makes Vapor Snag look as ridiculous as it did before Snapcaster Mage, for the real power behind W/U Delver is the threat of Snapcaster Mage plus Vapor Snag to clear an opponent’s board of his cheap threats so your cheap threats can strike.

Bounce my Golem token? Sure! Next turn, I’m ’Podding away this Blade Splicer to grab a Huntmaster of the Fells. Bounce my Huntmaster of the Fells? Sure! Next turn, it’s gonna be gaining me 2 more life and making a second Wolf on its way down. Bounce my Inferno Titan?

You get the picture. Kibler’s deck has been more or less crafted not to contend with Insectile Aberrations directly, but to dwarf the other spells and win through getting stolen time back with Huntmaster of the Fells and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

However, with Elves, none of your creatures disrupt the opponent or change his clock at all, and when your 3-drop doesn’t affect the board right away, it really doesn’t matter if it came down on turn two because by then, you’re on the back foot, staring at a 3/2 flyer that is going to be there when the game ends . . . unless you draw one of your two Incinerates.

As a side note, it feels as though complaining about Snapcaster Mage’s interaction with Mana Leak is like complaining about that one time you got stabbed as you’re getting shot at by machine guns. I realize I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I played a lot of fun matches (I use the term “fun” here loosely) against Delver before the tournament started; the match was basically predicated on whether my opponent had Gut Shot or Vapor Snag. Unsurprisingly, these cards were usually had, and there was usually a Snapcaster Mage to go with it.

I expected Elves to be good; I really did. I remember being scared shitless of playing against it when I was on Caw-Blade. It was not a fun matchup for the W/U deck. However, Standard is radically different now, and Elves are openly lampooned by Insectile Aberration and, God forbid, Geist of Saint Traft plus Spectral Flight. Green Sun's Zenith for Primeval Titan looks good in theory, but thanks to Vapor Snag, you’ll rarely get to 7 mana before you’re dead.

Ezuri, Renegade Leader
My first match was a W/U Delver brew that included Champion of the Parish and Gather the Townsfolk. We split the first two games, and in Game 3 I had a huge army of guys: five Elves, including two Elvish Archdruids, a Copperhorn Scout, and an Ezuri, Renegade Leader. My opponent put Angelic Destiny on a Champion of the Parish, attacked me to 4, tanked, and then Vapor Snagged my Ezuri, Renegade Leader, putting me to 3.

On my turn, I cast Ezuri, Renegade Leader, attacked with everything else, and killed him with two Overrun activations. If he bounces one of my Elvish Archdruids, I lose that game, but as it stands, I escape by the skin of my teeth on my opponent’s misplay.

I was able to win on the back of another opponent’s misplay. He was playing R/W Tempered Steel (in my estimation, it’s a very good deck), but there was a turn in which he didn’t Whipflare my board of Llanowar Elves, Llanowar Elves, Elvish Archdruid, so on my next turn, I cast Elvish Archdruid, Green Sun's Zenith for Elvish Archdruid, and Ezuri, Renegade Leader. The next two games were decided by me being blown out by Whipflare after my opponent realized his mistake.

Surprisingly, the one matchup in which I felt I was at a distinct advantage all night was Naya Pod. The match had the following play go down:

I have a shitload of Elves, including an Elvish Archdruid and an Ezuri, Renegade Leader, and he has two Huntmaster of the Fells and some other random dorks. In my upkeep, his two Huntmaster of the Fells transform. He targets my Ezuri, Renegade Leader with the first Ravager of the Fells trigger.

“Sure,” I say.

His second Ravager of the Fells trigger hits my Elvish Archdruid.

I tap a Forest. “Regenerate him.”

“Uhh . . . then I hit your Ezuri with the second one.”

“Sorry, man.”

“What?”

“I already regenerated. I can’t let you take that back.”

“It’s FNM, Jon.” It was the last round of the night. We were both 1–2 at this point.

“Sorry, man.”

I killed him from there, thanks to Copperhorn Scout.

Game 2 was a bit more interactive. My Green Sun's Zeniths for Viridian Corrupters interacted with his Birthing Pods.

Champion of the Parish
I’d say the match that pissed me off the most last Friday was my Round 3 disaster against mono-white Humans. We split the first two games (I had a turn-four win on the play in Game 2), and in Game 3, he keeps a two-lander and goes Champion of the Parish on one, Elite Inquisitor on two, and two Doomed Travelers on turn three. I never have any Combusts or Incinerates, so he takes the match, despite the following:

I’m at 1 life. He has three ground guys and a 1/1 flying Spirit, while I have two ground guys and an Incinerate in my hand. He attacks with just his Spirit, which I Incinerate. On my next turn, I play an Ezuri, Renegade Leader, then tap my Elvish Archdruid and Green Sun's Zenith for another Elvish Archdruid. Three blockers for three attackers. I confidently pass the turn.

So, he rips a land and casts Oblivion Ring. Game over.

He let me back into the game. He gave me a window to win, and I even had him dead the next turn (one of my Elves was a Copperhorn Scout). However, Standard tribal decks usually fall under the umbrella of decks that suck at being able to capitalize on opponents’ misplays; if the matchup is good for the opponent, he can fuck up a hundred thousand times and it won’t matter; he’ll still come away with the game the majority of the time.

LSV recently had a disastrous Draft, which can be found here. Essentially, what happens is LSV goes base-white in pack one while the guy he’s feeding in the Draft goes into white despite seeing no white cards pack one. He sees minimal white for the rest of the Draft, his deck is atrocious, and he loses in Round 1.

During pack two, when he sees nothing in white despite passing nothing in that color, he never once says anything negative about his neighbor going into white, but instead, he wonders what he could’ve passed to make his neighbor go into white or just innocently asks where all the white cards are. His deck turns out to be a teensy bit better than train wreck, and he’s stomped by his Round 1 opponent’s vastly superior rares. He doesn’t get pissed at all during any of this, ostensibly because he’s been around the block, and he’s played enough games to realize that he’s ran good before, so the idea of someone running good against him isn’t the end of the world. I have no idea how he keeps that kind of frame all the time, but good for him, because if I were in that chair during that Draft, I would’ve flipped the goddamn table.

If the best player won every game of Magic, we would have a real Caw-Blade problem on our hands. Who would want to play that game?

It’s hard to remember that sometimes.

Jon Corpora

Pronounced Ca-pora

@feb31st

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