Slow Playing the Beatdown
Been a minute! But Barbarian Class returns! Audio here:
A couple of weekends ago I won a small Premodern tournament run by my very good friend David Tao. It was an interesting format where each participant brought two decks. Play three rounds with one; swap, finish six rounds of Swiss with the second.
I chose to play a pretty stock Aaron Dicks Mono-Red "Sligh" deck (I hate that name) and my own same seventy-five from the North American Premodern Championship. Not surprisingly, more than half the players brought nearly identical starting-sixty Mono-Reds as one of their choices, but I was the only one to go 3-0.
Mono-Red, Red Deck Wins, or "Sligh" as the Premodern crowd calls it; is widely considered one of the two best decks in the format (along with Survival Elves). Elves is one of the fastest, most consistent, Weapons of Choice in Premodern; but has the disadvantage of being at a disadvantage against the Red Deck. While Red is supposed to be able to beat "anything" there are still a number of incredibly challenging matchups.
I managed to beat two of the best players, each piloting one of those tough decks; to the point that David thought it would be worth talking about.
This is the Red Deck that I brought:
Mono-Red | Pre-Modern | Michael Flores
- Sorceries (1)
- 1 Volcanic Hammer
- Enchantments (2)
- 2 Sulfuric Vortex
Like I said, this is mostly the Aaron Dicks deck that won the Premodern Easter Championship last year, and introduced Urza's Bauble to the mainstream. My Urza's Baubles (including the one oddball white bordered one) were signed by Olle Rade himself, so I will treasure them forever and probably never defect to the original Sligh style.
My sideboard is full of several different MichaelJ signatures, so probably bears a little discussion.
Premodern is this weird format where play/draw is far less important than in most contemporary metagames... But at the same time duels can be decided inside of three turns. Final Fortune goes in basically any time you have to be one turn faster. Either you can or will win given an additional topdeck and / or attack phase... Or the opponent will combo kill you the next turn anyway so rolling the dice is better than the alternative of saying "Go."
All four come in against Elves. All four also come in when facing the mirror; see "Detonate" right below.
There are six cards you want to take out against another Red Deck. None of them are "dead" per se... They're just not very good. Jackal Pup is bad because the opponent wants to kill it rather than being killed by it... So, its very existence turns every removal card into essentially a Searing Blaze. Same on Sulfuric Vortex... It's not terrible (the opponent takes damage before you do); but it can also lock you if you're not careful.
So take out those six and replace them with the four Lava Darts and two Detonates. Most Red Decks play Crash or Overload because they're generally better against Phyrexian Dreadnought decks... But you wouldn't ever really side Crash or Detonate in against an opposing Cursed Scroll. Detonate, though, is kind of fine against a Cursed Scroll because the opponent is likely to see one in any long game. The games go long because one Lava Dart kills any two creatures. All of Grim Lavamancer, Mogg Fanatic, Ball Lightning (and Jackal Pup if they're still in) have 1 toughness. Ergo, this subtle shift on artifact destruction creates a clean swap for another, highly popular, matchup.
You don't have to get super greedy. Two mana for four damage is more than good enough. Though obviously sometimes you'll win the lottery. I never have, but I imagine it's great.
I basically had four slots left in my sideboard, which I decided to devote to Blasts. The Michael J twist, though, is playing two and two. I used to think Pyroblast was slightly better than Red Elemental Blast because you can throw it at "anything" to get a card down for Cursed Scroll; but I now believe the opposite. Red Elemental Blast is slightly harder to play around for a Blue deck, so better the only times you want it... But the delta either way is very narrow. Therefore I thought it would be better to play a mix than all Red Elemental Blasts, which makes predicting your hand (or topdecks) more difficult for the opponent.
If you're only playing one, it should be a Red Elemental Blast; but if you're playing two, three, or four, I recommend playing some mix of the two so that the opponent can't know exactly how many you have. At five or more, though, you're obviously going to be playing a mix.
Now that you've seen my sideboard, let's talk about the interesting matchups that all hinged on that sideboard; most specifically, those last four cards.
First round was Roland Chang, a former Vintage World Champion and Legacy Champion. One of the great things about Premodern is how it attracts great players from other non-rotating formats (plus gives them a fun place to dust off their ancient Magical spells).
Roland was playing a Phyrexian Dreadnought deck. For those of you who don't know this strategy it works like this:
- Play Phyrexian Dreadnought
- With the Dreadnought's trigger on the stack, respond with either Stifle or Vision Charm. Stifle will prevent the Dreadnought from killing itself; and if you Vision Charm it, the Dreadnought will "forget" that it was about to commit seppuku when it comes back. Both cards have additional utility. You can Stifle an opponent's Wooded Foothills; and Flint Espil famously Vision Charm'd Rich Shay's Tormod's Crypt in the finals of the North American Premodern Championships, allowing him to combo kill through that fast and normally nigh-unbeatable spoiler (emphasis on "nigh"). Plan A with both is just a two-card combination to land your 12/12 early.
Dreadnought strategies come in a variety of flavors and color combinations, but their main claim to fame is just how badly they beat up the Red Deck. You can mulligan to as few as four cards and still wallop Team Jackal Pup! Imagine keeping...
That's a first-turn combo! You won't have anything left, but poor Sligh has almost no recourse in Game 1. You'd need to lace all four Lightning Bolts together to kill that Dreadnought, and even then, you're not likely to live the four turns required to get enough mana in play to duct tape them together!
Not surprisingly, Roland beat me like a drum in Game 1.
For the next two, I had to play very specifically. First of all, I could simply not keep a hand without Pyroblast or Red Elemental Blast. No version of a "good" hand is actually good enough. It's Blast-or-bust... Detonate in a pinch. Remember, Roland can mulligan down to four - four - cards safely. Given such a wide edge, he's way too good of a player to keep anything but a hand that will win if left unchecked.
That meant that I was attacking for one, because I always had to leave open to Blast (or at least bluff a Blast). Aaron Forsythe once said that progress in technical play is mostly un-learning general rules, and I think that's what this successful foray came down to: Instead of following the mana curve, instead of tapping out offensively every turn, I had to leave mana open because the alternative was essentially to lose on the spot.
The important part of Game 3 was just doing nothing on turn one. I finally drew a second land in my Game 3 opener, so I could start sequencing semi-normally on turn two... But again, it was about leaving mana open for Pyroblast.
The way it works is this:
The opponent casts Phyrexian Dreadnought. You let them do this. If you're playing Replenish one option is to respond with Abeyance; which, if it resolves, will essentially "kill" the Dreadnought because the opponent will never have an open to cast their Stifle or Vision Charm. But the Red Deck has to let it resolve. They will then move to cast their Blue instant, and your job is to stop the second half of the combo with a Blast.
Dreadnought decks often have something to say about that (e.g. a Counterspell of some sort). But if you don't do anything... You don't win. If the Dreadnought lives through your Blast, you can try to follow up with a Detonate. Regardless, you're unlikely to win any game that doesn't involve successfully landing one of your sideboard cards.
Slow playing the beatdown is quite applicable to current Standard play as well. For instance, this is one of the main decks I'm playing in Best-of-One right now:
Selesnya Pumps | SNC Standard | Michael Flores
- Creatures (17)
- 1 Legion Angel
- 1 Mavinda, Students' Advocate
- 3 Leonin Lightscribe
- 4 Clever Lumimancer
- 4 Dragonsguard Elite
- 4 Illuminator Virtuoso
- Instants (15)
- 1 Boon of Safety
- 2 Sejiri Shelter // Sejiri Glacier
- 4 Charge Through
- 4 Snakeskin Veil
- 4 Wild Shape
The big idea here is to untap with a Virtuoso in play and then put like 100 things on it. The best offensive turns usually involve a Homestead Courage, which will leave the Virtuoso back on defense and set you up for another Homestead Courage (and another vigilant attack) the next turn, thanks to Flashback. Courage is the best buff card because you can also discard it to Connive, but retain a future buff for more damage, more Connive, and in this specific case, more defense.
In almost every matchup the challenge is to just not play out your Virtuoso on the second turn. You know you want to. If you get to untap with it, you can start piling one-mana buff spells. Two turn clocks are trivial with this deck. You can start triggering Connive. So! Much! Damage!
But tapping out for the Illuminator Virtuoso early is rarely the right play. Almost every deck can deal with a 1/1 while you're tapped out, and your best draws are rarely heavy on attackers. Usually, I'll tap out only if I have a creature to draw the opponent's first removal spell (which, of course, can include two Virtuosos).
Rather, it is better to slow play the beatdown by waiting until turn three, but passing with open for Snakeskin Veil or Wild Shape (or in a pinch, Boon of Safety). Even if you don't have a protection spell, just passing with an open Overgrown Farmland can force the opponent to think twice before throwing a burn spell at your planned route to victory. If you can untap, you not only get the topdeck to find a Snakeskin Veil or whatever, you might just make your Virtuoso too big to kill with, say, Play with Fire or Blizzard Brawl.
In both cases - Premodern and Standard - slow playing your attack deck, leaving up mana to disrupt the opponent's combo (or removal spell) actually makes your deck faster than tapping out proactively. Because, of course, tapping out will get you killed [or your way to win killed] and then you're not going to race very effectively, anyway.
In the second Premodern round I played against David himself, who was running my Replenish deck from Boston last month. I knew I had lost Game 1 because he, um, kept a hand... Any hand. Largely with tech I brainstormed with David, Replenish was built to always beat Mono-Red in Game 1 if it kept a hand... Like literally any hand. Predictably, he set up Solitary Confinement before I dealt twenty damage, and flashed me Squee, Goblin Nabob for the lock.
Crypt is fine against Replenish itself, but has little to say about the deck just hard casting one big spell at a time. Worse, it is no fix for the Solitary Confinement + Squee combo. The opponent can't be targeted; and that includes having their graveyard emptied by Tormod's Crypt.
I approached the Replenish matchup in a similar way to Roland with Dreadnought. Not the same, but similar. Because David would need three mana for Intuition, I could tap out for at least the first turn, even on the draw. But from that point forward, I could never tap completely out.
Again, you can't beat the Confinement combo even if you have Tormod's Crypt; so, the strategy has to be to prevent Replenish from ever assembling it. That typically means stopping Intuition. If Replenish already has a Squee, they can Intuition for Solitary Confinement, Replenish, and Replenish; which will always yield a Confinement the next turn (and possibly more). If they are already super rich they can Intuition for as many as three copies of Squee, Goblin Nabob to not only power up Confinement, but turn most of their Blue spells into Ancestral Recall upgrades.
So, you have to stop Intuition from resolving!
I was pretty choosy in this matchup, allowing David to resolve both Careful Study and Attunement at different points. While powerful - especially in a Squee engine deck - those cards aren't the Demonic Tutor Intuition can be.
One of the cool things about holding back your Blast is that the Red Deck's last turn often involves spare mana. If you have two Mountains that you're about to sacrifice for Fireblast, you can float mana first and cover your lethal burn spells with a Pyroblast. That is one case where it's more than fine to flip from an early slow play to the fastest possible kill on a dime. Especially if the opponent taps a bunch of mana, look for an opportunity to change speeds and end the game before they can access what are inevitably far, far superior resources.
You're always racing.
But sometimes, finishing first means getting there slow. Just not second.