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Astral Slide: The Redemption Arc Begins

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Barbarian Class version guest-starring #1 deck-builder of all time, Zvi Mowshowitz!

Interlude: Spring 2000

"Zvi, I just won the Grudge Match qualifier with a new deck. I think it's a good deck. I think it might actually be THE BEST deck. I dunno man. I don't think I've ever made a deck this good before."

"Mike, Mike, Mike... This deck isn't good. In order for a deck to be 'good', it has to be good. This is just a jumble of cards. I know you won but... Tell you what? Why don't you tell me why you think it's a good deck and then I'll explain to you why you're wrong."

"Well, it beats literally everything."

"No deck beats literally everything. How do you figure?"

"You cast Vampiric Tutor; get whichever card in the seemingly mismatched jumble makes sense for the spot you're in; and then you beat them with it. Sometimes you get a five-for-one like with Perish; other times you get a five-for-one for no mana, as with Massacre. Some decks, even really good ones like Replenish can't operate at all if you just resolve your next spell.

"You have some other game plans too; first-turn Negator wins a lot of games. You can loop Yawgmoth's Wills by repeating Vampiric Tutors out of the graveyard. But mostly, you just cast the first Vampiric Tutor and you beat literally everything the next turn (even if the game doesn't actually end for a little while)."

Perish
Massacre
Stromgald Cabal

One Regional Championship and one National Championship later...

"The fourth Vicious Hunger really should have been a Snuff Out."

Interlude: Premodern 2022

My friend Phil Nguyen, spiritual leader and not-nominal wrangler of the New York meetups, just published a great guide for anyone who is interested in getting into Premodern. You can find Phil's document here

An Introduction to Premodern

Don't try to consume it all in one sitting, even if you're already into the format. There's a lot going on. Some I agree with, a bit of it I don't; but Phil has honestly been deep into this format longer than I have (and as you might be able to tell even from just this article, I have some biases). But the one thing I will maybe 80% agree with is the top of his tier list. Phil says there are four decks at the top of the Premodern pecking order:

  • Elves
  • Goblins
  • Sligh (I would call it RDW; the Premodern people don't seem to know what a Sligh deck is, sadly)
  • uw Control

Of these four decks there is maybe one - Goblins - that can really contend with rw Slide heads up. One. And if you ask the average Goblins player, they will probably say that Slide can feel like a one-sided mutilation for them. Goblins is extraordinarily powerful if it gets going, because all the cards build on one another. If you get a Goblin Lackey in on the second turn... All bets are kind of off. The problem is that rw Slide can stop the Lackey on turn one; and from there it's just a mountain of creature removal.

Goblin Lackey
Spark Spray
Swords to Plowshares

There is only one person I've ever met who thinks that the Sligh / RDW side is favored. That person is Aaron Dicks; unquestionably the Fire God of Premodern. Aaron won the Easter Champs in 2021 [with the deck that made me personally fall in love with the Premodern format]; made Top 8 of the North American Premodern Championship (where he lost to Our Hero); then flew back to Europe with pandemic lockdowns lifted to successfully defend his Easter Championship in 2022. He flew back to Europe again to narrowly miss Top 8 of the European Championship and most recently led the Swiss in the PSS4, Premodern's showcase event. All of those with basic Mountain in front of him.

If there is anyone you might want to listen to over YT about a matchup involving Jackal Pup, that person may just be Aaron. Smart guy! For instance, he agrees with me about how lopsided the RDW / The Rock matchup is! Good man. But before you throw all-in to the Road Warrior Fire God... The deck he lost to and missed Top 8 at Euros?

David Fischer with RW Slide:

I was on the one hand super sad when Aaron missed Top 8. The lone American who had made his way to Germany... Of course, I was cheering for him. He had also just knocked Olle Rade out of Top 8 contention in a repeat of the last round at the North American Premodern Championships. So OF COURSE I was cheering for my newfound friend. But if an unknown newcomer had to beat him... I confess to a little vindication that it was a RW Slide deck that was so obviously influenced by my PSS4 list.

The whole reason I signed up for the PSS was that I wanted to prove how good RW is in Premodern. I failed. RW lost a lot but it was me who failed. I did a lot of good things with my list and they are proving to be persistent improvements to the archetype. Thawing Glaciers looks like it's going to stick. Moving from Wrath of God to 4 copies of Slice and Dice... That's in every performing deck list now. One thing I liked about Fischer's changes was cutting the second Astral Slide from the main deck; though I prefer another card to the Seal of Cleansing he ran. I think adding a fourth Eternal Dragon is defensible, but not while cutting two Plains. I cannot cotton Forbidding Watchtower.

For my own trek in PSS4... I had some clear misses in my Slide deck. If I had played the one Tormod's Crypt in Fischer's sideboard I might very well have beaten Aaron. If I had my new version, which you'll see later, I would have been able to make a very different banning decision. Knowing he'd ban my Replenish deck, I was forced to ban his Fluctuator deck. Aaron ranched me mercilessly in the Zombies v. RW matchup. This looks like a loss by RW but it's really a loss by Mike.

If I had one card different, I could have banned Zombies instead of losing to it. In my imagination, I'd have beaten his Red beatdown deck with the same seventy-four that dropped to his Black beatdown deck. The innovation of Slice and Dice is great in matchups where it's an instant speed cantrip Wrath of God... As against Ball Lightning, Grim Lavamancer, and Jackal Pup... But Zombies plays mana denial. A single well-placed Wasteland makes the delta of four mana to six insurmountable given the speed of their clock.

Slice and Dice
Ball Lightning
Wasteland

Besides missing the stupid Tormod's Crypt, I made a really poor decision on my third deck. If you can believe it, I watched one match of coverage where this Stasis deck lost... And then 11th hour called up Flint Espil and Mike Heup to sub out my very good Hermit Druid combo for not just a loser-Stasis... But this unplayable Simic version that I had never even taken a test draw with. What was I thinking?

This put massive pressure on my rw because I only really had two decks to everyone else's three. Almost everyone banned the Replenish I had used to finish third at the North American Champs. Meaning I had to play rw almost every week! Knowing this, even Sligh-gaga competitors like Aaron just didn't run their Red Decks into it. Because duh.

So, I think rw is one of the best decks in Premodern. As with my 2000 conversation with Zvi... It's a little under-powered in the abstract. And nothing beats literally everything. The problem is, it just beats the hell out of all the top decks. Goblins I think can win (but they don't want you). Elves you set up with Humility and finish off with Slice and Dice (think about that one for a second). Red? "Enlightened Tutor for Rune of Protection: Red" has an awfully nice ring to it, don't you think? Main deck? Yes! Rune of Protection: Red, by the by, is the only card in the Slide deck that you can Enlightened Tutor for that also has cycling. This comes up even in non-Red matchups.

Humility
Enlightened Tutor
Rune of Protection: Red

Spiritually, rw hits a lot of the Flores classic buttons. Despite being a control deck, it's also a Boros deck... And you know how I feel about a Sacred Foundry into a Lighting Helix. It has a lot of Napster to it. You can find a bullet and win "on the spot" even if the game drags on for several more turns. But rw has this extra hidden superpower:

In fair games, where either player can win - where there's no matchup landslide - you're always ahead on the fundamentals. Your lands convert to spells when you have too many lands, and your spells un-manascrew you on land light openers. You can keep almost anything against an opposing fair deck and put up a fight. Come the mid game, again provided you aren't combo-killed or Big-Spelled in a single turn, you are quite likely to bury them in an avalanche of card advantage.

I wasn't able to showcase what I thought about rw in the PSS; but I learned a ton, and greatly improved my own version. With Prince of Premodern and THE CHAMP Flint Espil visiting New York this week, I was eager to show off the new list at this month's local meetup. This is what I played:


This is how I finished!

This is the story of how we got there:

Round One: Jeff with RW Slide

I was paired against our host, Jeff, in... I didn't know what matchup. Jeff might get the nod for the person most instrumental in my successful Lobstercon debut. I was super high on rw all last winter and spring... Until I hit Jeff at a play-test session. He trounced me with a gw Armageddon deck. This exposed rw's biggest flaw to me (without Counterspells, it can't contend directly with Big Spells). This extends to anything from a Balancing Act to a Parallax Tide. rw is powerful once its machinery starts to operate, but it kind of needs 7+ lands in play for the end game. There are just some decks in Premodern that can prevent that. So, you never beat them.

The last time I played against Jeff he was on Mono-Green StOmPy. StOmPy is a creature deck, but I wasn't sure how my six mana, damage-based "Wrath of God" would handle a 3/3 for 1 mana or a pile of Giant Growths.

Luckily, he was on rw Slide!

Flint passed by and predicted a draw. We drew.

I narrowly won Game 1 by drawing more Lightning Rifts than Jeff. It was still super tight and required me to know 2003-era cycling timing rules.

Jeff got Game 2 by drawing three Rifts to my one (which he destroyed). This one wasn't close.

In Game 3 I played with my back to the wall almost all of it, as Jeff had five Lightning Rifts (all four, an Enlightened Tutor, and an Argivian Find). I had to Swords to Plowshares my own Eternal Dragon twice just to stay alive. But come the end game I was about to play my first Lightning Rift with all four of his in the graveyard, mostly thanks to Akroma's Vengeance. And that was time!

Lightning Rift
Argivian Find
Akroma's Vengeance

0-0-1

Round Two: Lex with The Rock

Game 1 I played kind of sloppy. I missed a point and maybe shouldn't have blown a Swords to Plowshares on a Treetop Village.

It didn't help that Lex demolished me on the third turn. He missed a blind Cabal Therapy for Lightning Rift but followed up with a Wall of Blossoms to draw a card... and then re-ran the Therapy. He had seen my hand so he knew he was going to get three-for-one on Enlightened Tutor.

Cabal Therapy
Wall of Blossoms
Enlightened Tutor

Enlightened Tutor is one of the worst cards against The Rock. Their game plan is progressive card advantage, and Enlightened Tutor helps to cede card advantage to them. rw is all about individual card power, where every card in your deck is better than every card in their deck one-for-one; exemplified by Eternal Dragon. Enlightened Tutor really sucks here because it's so off-plan. But it still sucks to eat three-for-one on pure materiel turn two. Three-for-zero if you count the cantrip draw on Wall of Blossoms.

Nevertheless, I grinded us to even and assumed I was going to out-draw The Rock mid-game. You know, how I had it drawn up on the White board (but not how it played out in either PSS match). Lex went completely over the top with Spiritmonger.

Spiritmonger

That's Swords to Plowshares or bust! Lex had already gotten rid of my solo Astral Slide and Humility with Pernicious Deeds. I figured I had three turns to find an answer... Until he played a third Treetop Village. Dead.

One of the things I learned from the PSS is that I should have been playing four Exalted Angels. Exalted Angel is a great closer in the Red Deck matchups but The Rock is where it really shines. In the spirit of killing even my own darlings, I cut beloved Thawing Glaciers to make room for Exalted Angels three and four! Your game plan is always to go over the top with flyers - typically Eternal Dragon - but a lot of things can complicate this. The Rock has weird lines where they can compound a lot of card advantage or gain 12+ life per turn. rw can actually keep pace, because operating is so very mana-intensive for The Rock. But if you can deploy an over-the-top racer earlier (say turn three into turn four) you might be able to get so far ahead that it doesn't matter that they're gaining so much life if they have to spend a ton of mana every turn to do so. You go to sixties a lot, so cards like my one Abeyance are surprisingly likely to show up and ruin their game plan.

This is how I sideboarded:

The one Abeyance in my main deck has a number of potential functions. It randomly dominates 12/12s or one-shots Hermit Druid kills. Randomly. But in a long match like The Rock, where neither deck wins quickly and both are seeing a lot of cards, it can break up a single, but critical, turn late in the game. Depending on your Lightning Rift situation, this might allow you to get in an overwhelming amount of damage. It's also randomly "Time Walk" on turn two, and can pre-empt a planned sequence of Duress or just steal the three mana they were going to use to play a Pernicious Deed. Abeyance is not at its best versus The Rock, but it's still very good. I brought in two.

The story of Games Two and Three were just the scripted flyers plan. I ran Lex over with Exalted Angel in Game 2 and he was forced to bring in spot removal for Game 3. Nothing like "Vendetta for seven" to check off a moral victory on the way to an actual victory.

Abeyance
Exalted Angel
Vendetta

I felt an overwhelming amount of relief after this match. I knew - I knew not just in my bones but from play-testing - that The Rock was a really favorable matchup. But I lost both of my PSS The Rock matchups. I'd say "never again" but never say never, you know?

1-0-1

Round Three: Phil with Angel McAngelFace

The Jeskai tempo deck in Premodern goes by many names. Patriot. Star-Spangled Slaughter. My favorite: This Girl. And Phil's? Angel McAngelFace. Phil's actual, physical, deck is a matter of legend in the Premodern community. A lot of purists, like Bryan Manolakos, are all about old borders and classic basic lands from Mirage or Urza's Saga. Phil - one of the pillars of Premodern not just in New York but everywhere - spits in the face of these expectations by playing entirely new borders and gaudy alternate art. Just look at this thing:

It's hideous and gorgeous. Like a car crash. But, like, if a shiny red Lambo literally Sideswiped a MacLaren.

Game 1:

Star-Spangled Slaughter strategies have a lot going for them, but Phil's in particular does have one flaw. You know, like how my deck can't easily beat a Big Spell? The Premodern Jeskai mana base is a disaster. Flooded Strand and basic Mountain? Gemstone Mine? City of Brass? Sometimes it comes out smooth as butter, but sometimes you mulligan to five and keep a basic Plains. That's what happened in this game. Phil kept a double Mother of Runes draw; but I just so happened to have two copies of Spark Spray to deuce.

Gemstone Mine
Mother of Runes
Spark Spray

Game 2:

On the play Phil came out with Meddling Mage on turn two for Swords to Plowshares. With Pikula-protection, he ran out Lightning Angel and Exalted Angel to close as quickly as possible. Even then I was able to thread the needle and work my way into a spot... Where my expensive removal bit it to double Memory Lapse.

Game 3:

Phil Opened up on exactly Island. I led with Lightning Rift. Annul. That sucks, but we knew that was in the range. Then exactly Plains. Meddling Mage (on Swords to Plowshares again).

Exactly Plains and exactly Island. No time like the present! I played a third-turn morph. Of course Phil had a Red land for Fire // Ice. But I had a second morph. This one flipped. Now Meddling Mage was protecting my Exalted Angel from Swords to Plowshares! I had a third Exalted Angel, making the race easy. Really, really glad I added the additional Angels to my sideboard!

Speaking of which:

2-0-1

Round Four: Andreas with uw LandStill

uw in Premodern comes in two primary flavors. The more popular by far is LandStill. This deck revolves around playing the card Standstill and then kind of assuming your opponent won't do anything. You proceed to beat them up with Mishra's Factory and Faerie Conclave. They have to break the Standstill to remove the land (typically) and then you draw three cards and point a Counterspell at their removal card anyway. It's miserable if LandStill is able to operate. All the worst elements of Draw-Go and Prison-style lock decks at the same time. Making it an almost obvious most popular control deck in the format.

LandStill is easily the best matchup for rw Slide; and this is a format with Elves and RDW!

The other version of uw crushes Slide; but that one is not very good against beatdown; so luckily for me, Andreas was on the more popular LandStill.

Game 1:

The reason rw Slide is so good is because we can operate without breaking Standstill. In fact, our many Spark Sprays and Renewed Faiths allow us to hit land drops indefinitely. It is the uw deck that often has to break their own Standstill! The most aggressive uw decks play three copies of Decree of Justice. We not only have four copies, we tend to have more land in play. So, we can make a larger Soldier-army (that can often do things like gang-block a Mishra's Factory at instant speed) without triggering Standstill. It looks slow, but the rw plan is beautiful in execution.

Highlight of Game 1 was Andreas sending a Mishra's Factory into my six mana and then pumping it with a second. I responded with double Slice and Dice. Moral victory! Draw two cards!

I was still kind of low because I had been hit by a Factory for several turns and he had a second one. I waited for Andreas to discard to hand size once before breaking Standstill at the end of his turn with Abeyance. After drawing three he would have to discard at least two cards, and would miss his land drop. This ensured Swords to Plowshares would resolve, and I could start operating main-phase per normal.

Standstill
Mishra's Factory
Decree of Justice

Game 2:

The matchup is just really hard from the uw side. I don't really know how to describe it otherwise. In two games that went a combined eighty turns I think I got two spells countered; both by Annul. Think about that for a second. All my action is Dragon-cycling and Decree-cycling. I can remove creatures without triggering Standstill and draw multiple cards per turn without giving him an opportunity to interact. The games go so long that cards like Mana Leak cease to have text. The rw Plan A simply undermines the basis of the LandStill deck design.

I did still sideboard:

I left in Swords to Plowshares because, like Seal of Cleansing, it's still good against Mishra's Factory. I predicted Andreas might bring in Exalted Angel (he did) and it was good there as well. My innovation of Slice and Dice > Wrath of God really shines in matchups like uw Control. Wrath of God would be a card you would want to side out, but it's great against both the opponent's Decree of Justice and (as we saw in Game 1) the occasional Mishra's Factory.

3-0-1 and the Championship Belt! For the month of November, at least.

So, is rw Slide one of the best decks in Premodern? Especially after this week, I still think so, but I'm clearly biased. You decide!

Rich Shay - one of the smartest Premodern players in the world and most recently the PSS Champion - and I disagree on this conclusion. But when we talked about it, I pointed out something very local. rw Slide isn't "bad" ... It's really, really, bad against the kinds of decks Rich likes! He plays the other brand of uw Control. He is the format's acknowledged master of Parfait... A Land Tax / Armageddon disaster whose every dimension preys on everything that makes rw good... Or go at all.

Let's finish up with this list from Jens Jaeger. Right before my meetup, Jens successfully defended his Dutch Championships with... You guessed it! RW Slide:

Though it's not Slide at all! Jaeger continued the leap started at Euro Champs. I had two Astral Slides in my PSS deck; which went to 1 at Euros (which as you know I've adopted), now to zero in the Dutch-winning deck list.

I'm not sold on the one Seal of Cleansing main deck yet, though it's been in two of the recent performers. What I am going to adopt is my own Thawing Glaciers... Now main deck! Jens found a perfect home for the card!

There is a lot to like about his sideboard. Both Null Rod and Cursed Totem are awesome Enlightened Tutor targets. I think there is a hybrid to be found here, because I'm not giving up Abeyance, Light of Day, or my beloved third and fourth Angels any time soon.

Props:

Patrick O'Halloran-Gannon: Patrick is one of my primary Premodern play-test partners, but too young to hang where there's a lot of booze around; so, he doesn't get as many mentions as he probably deserves. When I say "my" innovation of four Slice and Dice - which has been adopted by every performing variation since the PSS4 lists were released - I mean "Patrick's" innovation. He is the one who got me to do it.

Slops:

No one! It's Premodern! Everything is awesome.

LOVE

MIKE

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