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Strixhaven Standard Set Review with Ali Aintrazi
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Controlled Burn

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The new set smell of Khans of Tarkir is starting to fade, and we’re getting into the toughest part of the year for brewing. Players have had enough time to work with the set, so the best cards have been identified, and the best decks have risen to the top. With three weeks until previews for Fate Reforged begin, it’s time to really start digging deep and finding the oddball ideas that no one else is willing to try.

I’ve seen a lot of casual players make the transition to tournament Magic over the years, and it’s interesting to see certain ideas pop up again and again from players who have never met. One of those ideas that most casual players will come up with at one point or another is the counter-burn deck. The idea is to counter anything your opponent plays while killing him with burn spells. It’s pretty great, right? Well, no. This is actually a terrible plan for several reasons, but this isn’t a strategy column, and I’ve been known to come up with a terrible idea myself from time to time. Besides, how are you supposed to find the good ideas if you won’t try out the bad ones?

There’s a reason I was thinking about all this, of course. That reason is Mindswipe. Something about this card appeals to me. I mean, it’s a Fireball that comes with a Counterspell. What’s not to like? I wanted to see if I could find a deck that uses both parts of the card effectively, so I carefully extracted my brain’s stupid-idea filter and started trying to build a counter-burn deck that might actually work.

The Creatures.

Yeah . . . No.

The Spells

Crater's Claws
Crater's Claws joins Mindswipe in the Fireball department, allowing you to kill your opponent with just two or three spells. Once you build up enough mana, the Claws can also be used to kill just about any creature.

Although this deck can’t take advantage of convoke, Stoke the Flames still provides a fairly reasonable damage output. It deals with early creatures such as Goblin Rabblemaster, Courser of Kruphix, and Savage Knuckleblade. It can also take away a significant chunk of your opponent’s life total.

Like Stoke the Flames, Jeskai Charm can be used to deal 4 damage to your opponent at instant speed. However, the Charm’s other mode is quite different. Instead of permanently dealing with a small creature, it temporarily dispatches a threat of any size. It can buy you some valuable time, and if your opponent happens to sacrifice a fetch land when you have 3 mana available, you can cast Jeskai Charm is response to make your opponent shuffle the creature away.

Dissolve is the bread-and-butter counterspell in Standard right now. It’s nothing incredibly powerful, but it gets the job done every time. The oft-underestimated scry 1 ability makes the card even more useful as the game drags on.

Disdainful Stroke is a bit more flashy than Dissolve, allowing you to counter your opponent’s biggest spells for just 2 mana. With most Standard decks relying on big threats like Siege Rhino and Butcher of the Horde, Disdainful Stroke can do a lot of work. However, I hesitate to include a full play set since decks like Jeskai Wins run very few targets for the spell.

Banishing Light
Banishing Light deals with Planeswalkers such as Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. Unfortunately, they both jump just out of range of Jeskai Charm and Stoke the Flames after their +1 abilities have been activated. Banishing Light gives you a better solution, and the fact that it deals with creatures as well means running four isn’t much of a risk.

Most good control decks have some sort of Wrath of God effect, and this one is no different. Well, it is a little different. With this deck, you’ll often cast End Hostilities more aggressively than traditional control decks. You’re often not looking to gain complete control of the game, you just need enough time to cast some burn spells and kill your opponent before he kills you. Using End Hostilities to kill two creatures and preserve your life total is sometimes better than waiting to generate maximum card advantage. It’s also the reason I’ve included a full four copies. Against creature decks, drawing a second copy rarely feels bad, especially if you popped off the first right on turn five.

Dig Through Time has been running wild in both Standard and Modern, often paired with Jeskai Ascendancy. It can dig deep into your deck and find any two cards you want, making assembling a winning hand almost effortless. This deck doesn’t have the graveyard-filling power of most decks that use the card. However, Dig Through Time is an instant, meaning you can cast it during your opponent’s end step, when you can afford to put more mana into it.

Jace's Ingenuity essentially serves as more copies of Dig Through Time. The card doesn’t require delve to make its cost manageable, but it’s also less effective at finding the cards you need. The ability to keep three cards instead of two can sometimes be an advantage since the deck’s X spells allow you to make use of any number of lands.

Playtesting

Abzan Midrange — Game 1

Mindswipe
The game started off with lands on both sides.

My opponent cast a turn-two Thoughtseize, taking my Jeskai Charm.

On turn three, he cast Courser of Kruphix, and I simply played a land and passed.

He attacked with the Courser and cast a second, which I countered with Mindswipe, dealing 1 damage.

He tried for a Siege Rhino on the following turn, but I had a Dissolve for that. I took another 2, and he passed the turn. I killed the Courser with Crater's Claws and passed back.

My opponent cast Abzan Charm to draw two cards, and he played a Sylvan Caryatid. I played a land and ended my turn.

My opponent cast Elspeth, Sun's Champion and made three tokens. I exiled the Planeswalker with Banishing Light, but my opponent cast another copy.

He hit me for 3 with his tokens, and I struck back for 4 with Jeskai Charm. I killed Elspeth with Crater's Claws and passed the turn.

My opponent dropped me to 11 with the tokens and passed back. I cast End Hostilities to wipe the battlefield clean.

My opponent passed the turn with no play, and I did the same.

Dig Through Time
He cast Utter End on Banishing Light, and I cast Jace's Ingenuity in response. Utter End resolved, bringing back Elspeth, who made three Soldiers. I cast Dig Through Time during the end step. I untapped and cast a second Dig Through Time. This time, I found another Banishing Light, and I cast it to return Elspeth to exile.

My opponent cast Sorin, Solemn Visitor. He gave his tokens +1/+0 and lifelink, attacking me down to 5 and going up to 16. I cast End Hostilities and passed the turn.

My opponent made a Vampire with Sorin, and he cast Abzan Charm to draw cards. He tried for Brimaz, King of Oreskos, but I countered it with Dissolve. Sorin made a Vampire, and my opponent passed the turn. I killed Sorin with Jeskai Charm and ended my turn.

My opponent dropped me to 3 with the Vampire, and I cast Dig Through Time during his end step. I passed the turn with no play, and my opponent attacked with his token.

I killed it with Stoke the Flames. He cast Siege Rhino, but I was ready with Disdainful Stroke. I played a land and passed the turn.

My opponent cast Sylvan Caryatid, and I cast Jace's Ingenuity and Stoke the Flames during his end step. I played a land and passed the turn again.

My opponent did the same, and I played one more land and cast Crater's Claws for 10 to win the game.

Game 2

Disdainful Stroke
The game got off to a slow start with my opponent’s Courser of Kruphix as the first spell.

He cast a second the following turn and hit me for 2.

My opponent cast Sorin, Solemn Visitor, but I was ready with Dissolve. The Coursers hit me for 2 more, and I played a land and passed again.

My opponent cast another Sorin, and I met this one with Disdainful Stroke. The Coursers dropped me to 12, and I took my next turn to wipe them away with End Hostilities.

My opponent drew two cards with Abzan Charm and cast Brimaz, King of Oreskos. I exiled Brimaz with Banishing Light.

My opponent exiled Banishing Light with Utter End, but I cast Stoke the Flames during his end step to deal with Brimaz again.

Jeskai Charm
My opponent cast Siege Rhino, draining me for 3. I exiled the Rhino with Banishing Light.

He cast Read the Bones and cast a Courser of Kruphix. I immediately killed it with Stoke the Flames. I played a land and passed the turn, and so did my opponent.

I cast Crater's Claws for 8 and ended my turn.

My opponent played a scry land, keeping something on top. I passed the turn, and he cast Brimaz, King of Oreskos. I passed back with no play.

When he moved to combat, I put Brimaz back on top with Jeskai Charm. I didn’t cast anything on my turn, and my opponent tried the Brimaz again.

This time, I had a Dissolve to counter it. My opponent cast Abzan Charm to draw two cards.

He cast Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and I cast Dig Through Time in response. I found a Disdainful Stroke to counter the Planeswalker, and I cast two copies of Jeskai Charm during the end step to deal 8 damage. I untapped and cast Crater's Claws for 9, more than enough to finish the job.

Wrap-Up

Well, it works. Kinda. I mean, I did defeat one of the best decks in Standard at the moment, but it always felt as though I was an inch away from losing. I think a fourth copy of Dig Through Time is definitely in order. I never felt unable to cast it, even when I drew all three in one game. With every spell but Banishing Light going straight to the graveyard, it’s not hard to collect a few cards to delve. The only time I felt that I had things under control was after Digging for a pair of sweet spells.

There are some big advantages and disadvantages to using burn spells as a win condition in a control deck. On one hand, the spells can all be used as removal if necessary, and running a creatureless deck makes all your opponent’s removal spells useless. With many popular Standard decks running eight or more cards to kill creatures right now, you can turn nearly one quarter of your opponent’s spells into dead draws. On the other hand, you’ll always need to use multiple cards to end the game instead of riding one creature all the way to the finish line.

In the end, the deck played a lot more like a generic control deck than I expected. You just don’t have time to cast burn spells at your opponent until he runs out of threats. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s just not what I expected. In the end, this mostly serves as a control deck with an odd win condition that can invalidate a lot of your opponent’s cards. If that seems like your cup of tea, feel free to give it a try.


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