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Next Level Bill: Advancements in Mono-Blue


Last week my friend Brian David-Marshall asked me if I had much experience playing "that Mono-Blue deck". So, of course I rattled off everything I talked about in last week's article about post-The Meathook Massacre Standard.

"Oh yes," I told him. "I've played lots of Mono-Blue! But I don't like the Ledger Shredder version. Tolarian Terror seems much better in general. But, really it's all about Delver. Delver and Slip Out the Back..."

He looked at me like I was a crazy person.

Well, I assume he looked but it was a vanilla phone call, so we're drawing on the imagination that made Napster here.

"Oh, I don't play Delver," he replied. [Something something Karn's Sylex]

Karn's what now?

I must admit, I couldn't say with great certainty what Karn's Sylex did at the time. I think I had played against it in Limited once?

"There are so many conditions on Karn's Sylex," he explained. "Because Bill Stark played it so much in play-testing."

It must be used at sorcery speed.

It exiles itself even though it "only" destroys everything else.

It... What the!?! Bill Stark?

If you don't know Bill Stark, he was a longtime WotC guy who left [relatively] recently, allowing him to share his Magic ideas more liberally. My favorite thing about Bill - and this is by Bill's design - is that when he made Top 8 of a Legacy Grand Prix years ago he credited me with the build of his Mono-Black beatdown deck despite the fact that it only loosely resembled the Flores-deck he was referencing.

"What can I say?" He later told me in reply. "I know my audience."

Bill has been keeping a blog called Making Mythic since leaving WotC, and has written about several off-the-beaten path decks that, while atypical, are quite capable of "Making Mythic." His biggest previous contribution was probably a Body of Research combo deck, but I was intrigued enough about this new Mono-Blue that I broke the cardinal rule of Mythic Limited players and busted a bunch of wildcards for in-set Karn's Sylexes.

Previous Level Bill

This is the first version of Bill's deck that I pulled off his blog:

Colossally embarrassed, this is what I sent to him via Twitter later that morning:

I meant it about the Maestros engine.

The inclusion of four copies of Maestros Theater doesn't make a lot of intuitive sense for a Mono-Blue deck. In practice they're a very small cost to what seems like a small amount of life gain.

But it's only small when you don't see the rest of the deck's apparatus.

Devious Cover-Up
Devious Cover-Up
Devious Cover-Up

Bill described his deck as the return of Buehler Blue; "Buehler" in reference to Hall of Famer and onetime Grand Poobah Randy Buehler's famous Counterspell-heavy Standard deck from the World Championships.

But I see this deck much more like a take on Baron Harkonnen, Adrian Sullivan's first famous foray into the world of deck design:

At the time The Corrupter built The Baron in the mid-1990s, control decks were almost all base uw. They used light Counterspells to support the real heavy lifting being accomplished by White removal like Swords to Plowshares, Wrath of God, and Balance. Adrian "invented" a whole different angle, which ended up being the basis for The Philosophy of Fire.

Most people understood that if you killed two Ironclaw Orcs with a Wrath of God, you got a two-for-one. They were less clear in those days about the investment in time that it would take you to get that two-for-one. No one - no one but Adrian that is - had really started to grasp the card advantage you got by comparing a Fireblast and an Incinerate to a Natural Spring in a similar way. Natural Spring, of course, sucks. None of us would play it today. But in the mid-1990s, Adrian chose it very specifically to create a specific imbalance against the deadliest Red cards of the day.

He could make a lot of mistakes because Gaea's Blessing allowed the Baron to continually recycle its Natural Springs, Counterspells, or namesake kill spell - Mahamoti Djinn - essentially infinitely.

This is the angle that I think Bill figured out with his 2022 Buehler Blue. It doesn't matter how many times the opponent pays two extra (and two life) to Infernal Grasp your Tolarian Terror. It doesn't matter how many times you trade one-for-one. You can almost never run out of lands. You can almost never run out of life gain lands. Devious Cover-Up gives his deck a very 1997 infinity angle that is a meaningful departure from the rest of the Standard format.

In actual operations, Bill's original build leaned heavily on Fading Hope and (not surprisingly) Karn's Sylex to catch up whenever something got through his Counterspells wall. But in practice? What's getting through the Counterspells wall?

Syncopate Sucks

Syncopate Sucks. Full stop.

If you're on the draw, you're kind of already doubly behind in the game. Going second sucks for everyone, but these Blue decks in Standard really, really want to be on the play. Bill's deck differs from the more popular Delver deck primarily in that it doesn't have Delver of Secrets to really, really get the jump on going first.

Essence Scatter is embarrassing against two-mana plays on the draw; Syncopate is even worse. It's un-castable almost any time the opponent slow-plays the beatdown. It's bad enough this deck needs to make all its land drops to be happy. If it doesn't? Syncopate looks even worse than the bad version of Essence Scatter (which, at least, is predictable in cost).

Yet... I don't think you can cut it! Why? Every single time Syncopate doesn't suck...

Syncopate is the Best

If you counter a Tenacious Underdog on turn two one time, that's all it takes to become a full-time Syncopate simp.

You get to do this less than half the time; but I do believe it justifies Syncopate's presence in the deck. Bill himself has gone on sick runs with Negate in the Syncopate slot (especially for best-of-three); but in even my most recent builds, I'm on at least three copies.

It's probably worth talking about why you might want to play Bill's strategy now. It has many of the weaknesses of the more popular Mono-Blue deck... But completely lacks the unbeatable early Delver draws. What gives?

This deck is meaningfully behind most aggressive decks, especially on the draw. The other Mono-Blue deck is one of the steepest mountains to climb; whether on the play or on the draw.

So why play it?

It crushes anything medium. Mercilessly demolishes anything slow. Even beatdown decks - if they don't close you out - will fall in the long game to the Maestros engine. This deck has inevitability like none other in Standard.

My opponent has already lost.

Before you ask why there's a Swamp in play, we'll get to that!

Slow decks that rely on stuff like The Wandering Emperor, Elspeth Resplendent, or other expensive (and generally non-Blue) control elements tend to get one-for-one'd a couple of times before they get buried by the first Silver Scrutiny. By the time you're flashing back Memory Deluge... You probably get it.

The biggest reason the deck is viable; both in terms of its defensive deck speed against aggression and its ability to flip the script on other aspiring control decks is Tolarian Terror.

Postmodern Tarmogoyf

"Tolarian Terror is really good. It's going to be a $1 common (if it's not already) and you should be picking them up off the draft table from the 'chaff' people leave behind. In this deck its advantages are maximized: after surviving the first few turns casting all your spells it becomes cheap enough to cast AND leave counters up, but whilst on the battlefield it's very 'expensive' so you can blow up the world with Karn's Sylex while leaving your creature unaffected. Ward 2 is also no joke: for a Red deck to kill this thing it costs them seven mana between ward, Lightning Strike, and the currently legal Shock variant."

-From Bill's blog, "The Return of Buehler Blue"

Tolarian Terror is durable for so many reasons. First off, a 5/5 is big for Standard. It's not Titan of Industry big, but it can trade with most playable Dragons, the odd Angel, and even a huge Haughty Djinn. As we already know, trading is fine because Buehler Bill Blue will just recycle dead Terrors while the opponent is still trying to recover from their large resource exchanges.

Secondly, Ward 2 isn't nothing. It isn't everything. I mean some maniacs play Void Rend. But depending on the stage of the game, it can be enough of a disincentive that you have time to amass sea monster defense (at least for a turn or three).

But most importantly, it often costs only one mana!

In the middle turns, Bill Blue can just tap U for a 5/5 Ward and pass the turn. You probably made your land drop. You probably have a bunch of mana open. If they don't force you to Syncopate or Essence Scatter; you're going to ram a Memory Deluge down their throats! Against a control deck, the super low cost on the postmodern Tarmogoyf will allow you to switch from a Draw-Go role to a Counter-Sliver one; from defending against opposing threats to simply protecting the queen for a few swings.

Against creatures, a slightly more expensive Tolarian Terror is still good. Get in a bounce; Impulse once; counter that. I guess four mana 5/5 Ward is going to have to be good enough! No attacks, huh? Do I get an untap?

Keiga, the Tide Star this card is not; but for four mana, it does a lot of ground-holding against small creatures. The opponent will often have to make a quick calculation about card advantage versus damage; and being on the wrong side of it will often put them in a position where they never get through the Maestros engine. This is especially problematic as the opponent may be forced to stockpile small things on the other side of the table while the one-mana-but-also-seven-mana Terror plays oh so saucily with... You guessed it... Bill's favorite... Karn's Sylex.

Next Level Bill

I determined quickly that Bill needed Consider.

Consider isn't just a bad (but far cheaper) Impulse in this deck: It's just a faster - far faster - way to get Tolarian Terror online. Plus, it helps with Bill's sideboard plan.

This is what he ultimately put together for Best-of-Three:

Hullbreaker Horror is a great finisher; and appropriate for this strategy in part because it can't really beat an opposing Hullbreaker Horror.

I was initially vocal about cutting a land, as Consider would help smooth early game draws, but I've also returned to twenty-five for my most recent testing.

This version is far less refined than Bill's Best-of-Three build. I wanted to re-add the twenty-fifth land because it was specifically a Swamp.

The shift in mana base - and the reason behind it - are all pure Adrian Sullivan. The Corrupter asked me an interesting question early on: Why is four Maestros Theater the right number?

Why not one? Why not twelve?

I don't know that there is a great blanket answer to this question beyond wanting at least fourteen lands that come into play untapped in your control deck. But I'm testing eight because these eight all get Swamp. One Swamp to support the kicker on four copies of Rona's Vortex:

Rona's Vortex

Bill always argued that the deck wants Fading Hope because bad stuff can happen early, before you get your Counterspells online. I bought that. But Fading Hope is also a terrible Magic card that is barely Constructed viable. Remember when I said we should swap it for Geistwave?

Adrian came up with a solution that mostly does what Bill wanted early but is also not embarrassing late in the game. You do lose the Scry. I hate losing the Scry. Fading Hope can smooth your early draws almost like a Consider. But it's sooooo bad so often, and generally always bad late.

But Rona's Vortex? Not only is this card much better once you have a post-scarcity amount of mana, but it's casually amazing against problematic threats like Tenacious Underdog or Phoenix Chick. I'm not sure if my build is the best yet, but my first game was a victory over Mono-Red (which is about the hardest matchup) on the DRAW so I can only assume it has a 100%-win rate.

I think you should give this very different, but still competitive, deck a swing yourself. There is nothing like Devious Cover-Up management that gains you a ton of life, ensures you keep hitting your land drops, but somehow doesn't impact the casting cost of your Tolarian Terror.

If you didn't understand that, you want six instants and sorceries in your graveyard. Five is six because the Cover-Up itself is about to go to the graveyard. So, you can go from six to five (temporarily) to return a card like Consider, Impulse, or Silver Scrutiny to your library. I almost always return all my Maestros Theaters (or the equivalent) that are in my graveyard to keep hitting land drops, unless I'm in topdeck trouble or something. I will almost always return any Tolarian Terrors in the graveyard because they don't impact the casting cost of future Terrors but are sweet to draw. This is especially true in post-scarcity phases where you're likely to be above seven cards in hand so you actually want to make a land drop and get something out of your hand. It's super sweet if that something costs a mere U.



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