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Today, I want to go over some questions I’ve received over the last two weeks. Sadly, my initial plans of a doing breakdown sooner were thrown out the window by a personal matter, but I did get some good discussion material during my hiatus. For this piece, I focused on four common questions that I received via e-mail and that I’ve seen asked around various forum threads. While I may not have the precise answers to all of them, I can at least try to explain the answers from my point of view. Let’s start with the most common question I’ve heard since the first tournament results poured in post-rotation.

Why Is Birthing Pod Bad?

Pod, as in the actual card Birthing Pod, is quite strong, and it’s among the best tutors printed over the last few years. Unfortunately, the metagame is so hostile to the type of toolbox and curve considerations Birthing Pod requires that it has become a losing proposition to play the deck in any traditional form. I don’t pretend to have the solution, and I wish I had better news to tell players who enjoyed Pod in the past. With that said, there is a possibility that the metagame is moving back toward a more friendly place for Birthing Pod, with Ancient Grudge moving out of sideboards, U/B control becoming a real strategy, and Wolf Ramp usually not interacting with Pod.

For Pod decks to succeed, they need a way to favorably interact with those strategies without being so nar-row as to lose to other types of decks in the metagame. Right now, the only way I see for Pod to survive is for it to simply be added into an existing strategy and have the chips fall where they may, rather than building entirely around the namesake card. For example, Birthing Pod does a really good job of fetching up Mirran Crusader from the 2-mana spot, and it can fit nicely into the curve without needing to play a high-drop first. Instead of trying to just slam a 5 and then go Podding, removal of all the high-end cards could be valid. Here’s just one example of such a list:

[cardlist]

[Creatures]

1 Fiend Hunter

3 Blade Splicer

3 Grand Abolisher

4 Champion of the Parish

4 Doomed Traveler

4 Hero of Bladehold

4 Mayor of Avabruck

4 Mirran Crusader

[/Creatures]

[Spells]

3 Honor of the Pure

3 Mortarpod

4 Birthing Pod

[/Spells]

[Lands]

10 Plains

2 Forest

3 Gavony Township

4 Razorverge Thicket

4 Sunpetal Grove

[/Lands]

[/cardlist]

The Mayor is a reasonable Anthem effect in the deck, and having Birthing Pod may not seem like much, but upgrading a 2- or 3-drop is a pretty huge swing in power. Even just sacrificing a Doomed Traveler for a Mayor of Avabruck can be backbreaking against a control deck at the end of an attrition war. In sideboarding, things get interesting, since you can run Fiend Hunter, Leonin Relic-Warder, Suture Priest, Thrun, the Last Troll, and other cards that you may not want to run more than two of, but which you’ll consistently want to find. The key is that the deck is perfectly valid without a Birthing Pod, and it still gains something from having a Pod in play. That’s the flaw, I think, in many builds, including many of my own that tried to solve the problem. In the end, I have to accept that any successful Pod deck is going to be happy with Pod being an incremental power boost comparable to a planeswalker and not the massive swing it was in toolbox builds.

I know what some will say: “Josh, you missed the point of Pod decks!” Perhaps that’s true, but all I know is that what people largely perceive to be the main way of building Pod decks has failed. Instead of continually trying to fix up concepts that are flawed from the get-go, it may be time to take more drastic steps and instead embrace Birthing Pod as an assistant card. Cracking 2’s and 3’s to fetch up Crusader, Blade Splicer, and Hero of Bladehold may not be as powerful or sexy as Sun Titan into Phantasmal Image into Elesh Norn, but right now, it’s a much better plan to be on.

Going big and relying on land-destruction to buy some time just isn’t a realistic option anymore. Against U/B control, you’re behind the eight ball to begin with, since resolving a Birthing Pod is no easy feat. There are very few spells in the average Pod build that U/B is concerned with countering, and most of those are 6 mana or more. Even if a Pod does hit the field, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have a live creature to evolve into a Charizard or Titan. It takes time to ramp up to the threats that actually matter, and with spot removal, U/B can do a good job of limiting what you can do. To top it off, if the U/B player is dead set on milling Pod to death (which is a reasonable option), Phantasmal Image can’t even be used to get the Pod player back into a game once U/B plays a finisher. The same goes for Army of the Damned; you simply have no option outside of Stonehorn Dignitary against a huge swarm of Zombies.

As for the ramp decks of the format, Wolf Green can simply beat up Pod before it really gets moving, and the Green deck has tutors for Viridian Corrupter and Acidic Slime to take out Pod. The kicker is that the Wolf Run’s endgame is just better than anything Pod can do. Read those words until they sink in for those who believe the endgame is a real strength of Pod. Kessig Wolf Run and Titans are simply better than anything you plan on slamming onto the table, and Dungrove Elder can actually outclass Titans in a fight. There’s simply no endgame you can have with Pod decks of any color with Splinter Twin gone that Wolf Ramp can’t beat with its own endgame. The very best you can hope for is some setup with Elesh Norn and Titans, and even that plan loses to an opposing Beast Within or a big enough Dungrove Elder backed by Kessig Wolf Run.

The sad reality is that it’s very possible that there’s simply no room for Birthing Pod right now and that it’ll join the long line of once-relevant Standard players that can’t cut it. At that point, you simply need to shelve the strategy to save yourself a huge amount of pain and suffering in the long run. Moving on to our next question . . . 

Why Play W/U or U/B over Solar Flare?

Playing a two-color control deck has natural benefits over Solar Flare—the easiest to recognize being the stouter mana base. The combination of Scars lands, M10 duals, and normal basics is not an easy mix to make flow well, and it becomes nearly impossible in a deck that wants to cast Blue spells, Liliana of the Veil, and Day of Judgment by turn four. Some hands don’t make that a necessity, but the extra tapped lands definitely make a difference when trying to hit your 5’s and 6’s on time. Additionally, you gain access to the utility lands that Solar Flare lacks—whether it be Moorland Haunt, Inkmoth Nexus, or Ghost Quarter. Having these can make a significant impact on certain matches and can even let decks play an entirely different game plan than they normally would.

A good example is the more aggressive W/U Blade deck against Solar Flare; normally, the Blade player would be forced to run later creatures into the gauntlet of counterspells and spot removal for little gain. Now, with Moorland Haunt, he can slowly peck away at Flare even if that deck successfully stop a few waves of threats. Obviously, a Sword-reaching play is a disaster in this case, and it absolutely must be stopped instead of just dealing with the creatures W/U attempts to use.

As for other tangible reasons to go two-color, one is simply that you gain more space for cards like Gideon Jura, Despise, and other such treats. While Solar Flare can run these cards, the deck often won’t have the available space after adding the engine and protection to the threat; see the initial destruction of Flare by mono-Red for a good example of that. By not needing the extra space for more Flashback cards like Unburial Rites and the Sun Titan/Phantasmal Image package, you can play cards with a bit more focus. So yeah, you won’t be blowing people out with a Sun Titan on turn four, but you also have room for the additional cards that keep you in the game against Red and other aggro plans.

In fact, U/B is on the same plan as Flare; it just plays the endgame differently. Otherwise, the main goal is to grind the opponent out of resources, so why is one endgame plan better than the other? Once again, it comes down to space and how much of it you can devote to cards that accomplish your goal. Having more Dissipate than the opponent in the control mirror is actually a huge issue, thanks to Snapcaster Mage. Cards like Despise, which end up on the cutting room floor in Flare, can become all-stars in U/B, if only for the information and planeswalker-killing abilities they provide. Having one of the only non-counters in the format that can get rid of a ’walker at no loss of value is a unique tool to have in your arsenal. Versatility is your friend, and being U/B or U/W means you can have a whole lot more of it in the six to eight slots you save.

Of course, you could take the third route, which is playing U/W control and splashing Black for Doom Blade, Flashback on Forbidden Alchemy, and Nephalia Drownyard. Right now Day of Judgment, Mirran Crusader, and Oblivion Ring look pretty good compared to most options with U/B. The mana is still a mess, but once you cut the Black down significantly, even the bad mana looks miles better than anything Solar Flare could muster. Once we see more refined lists trying this, a breakdown will be in order, I’m sure.

Why Is Mono-Red Fading?

The short answer is that decks are becoming more refined and packing cards that are better against small red men and burn; however, that answer has a “but” attached. The long answer is that mono-Red had an amazing initial weekend that produced an immediate backlash, when the real answer was just refining the decks people were playing. Instead of that, everyone just jammed some Timely Reinforcements into whatever they were playing and called it a day. In the short term, this was a fine call, but it set back the evolution of many control and midrange strategies to have these cards main-decked. Now the metagame has changed drastically with the introduction of Wolf Ramp and the knowledge that U/B control is superior to Solar Flare (right now, anyway).

So if the metagame changed drastically and Red was beaten back a bit, why do many people still insist on main-decking Timely Reinforcements? This is even sillier when you realize that many Red decks adapted to this with Hero of Oxid Ridge and other small tweaks. Red is largely being written off because of people’s own hatred of dying to mono-Red players and because of the difference in percentages between playing an average player with a stock list versus mono-Red diehards like Patrick Sullivan. A good example of this comes into play when talking about Wolf Ramp versus Red Deck Wins. Many people will argue that Wolf Ramp is advantaged and that the Red player will struggle mightily. This is true . . . in the context of the old lists people were running . . . which were weeks behind the metagame.

People aren’t surprised when U/B or U/W control adapt or when a deck like Birthing Pod suddenly changes some percentages with a few tweaks. Yet when you ask people about RDW, their opinions of matches are pretty stagnant throughout the lifespan of a given Red deck. Until a new set comes out, people usually will think of Red decks in whatever sense they were familiar with it, and they’ll ignore all evidence of change to it. Just adding cards like Geistflame and Furnace Scamp can make a major difference in how fast Red is and what draws can or can’t beat the deck, but I’m supposed to believe that Wolf Run beats the deck all the time . . . just ’cause. Congratulations, you stumbled onto Viridian Emissary as a solid wall card that doesn’t inherently suck against burn. That does not mean that an Emissary and a Tree of Redemption will hose Red decks for the foreseeable future.

Here’s an example of a Red deck I think is doing things in an interesting way.

[cardlist]

[Creatures]

3 Goblin Fireslinger

4 Furnace Scamp

4 Goblin Arsonist

4 Stormblood Berserker

4 Stromkirk Noble

[/Creatures]

[Spells]

4 Brimstone Volley

4 Geistflame

2 Devil's Play

3 Goblin Grenade

4 Shrine of Burning Rage

[/Spells]

[Lands]

24 Mountain

[/Lands]

[/cardlist]

Of course, you could dump the heaviest and most conditional burn and instead package in Chandra's Phoenix (which is still a very good card) and Volt Charge, for example. The only constants I think are truly warranted from deck to deck are sets of Stromkirk Noble, Shrine of Burning Rage, and Geistflame. All of these cards are patently absurd, with the first two being the best cards the Red deck has access to, and with the latter being among the best removal spells available.

Is Tempered Steel a Real Deck?

Much like RDW, Tempered Steel started off with some strong showings and quickly floundered as the meta-game developed and Ancient Grudge became a four-of in many sideboards. The lack of competent players bringing Steel to the table didn’t help matters—only Ari Lax took up the cause at the SCG Open series. Oddly enough, the last two weeks have actually put the deck in a better spot, despite other strategies becoming more refined.

Artifacts in general have become less of a factor as the format has evolved, and right now the only decks playing more than a handful of artifacts are Steel, Infect, and certain Wolf Ramp decks running Swords. If Inkmoth Nexus weren’t so prevalent, I would imagine that many people would move back toward Naturalize just to have assistance against Oblivion Ring and other enchantments. Even with Inkmoth Nexus and Wolf Ramp being such major factors, most Wolf Ramp decks are dropping down to just a handful of Grudges. With that problem eliminated, the only thing stopping Steel from becoming a major player again is proper play.

Tempered Steel is still a legitimate strategy, and most people only do badly with the deck because they can’t properly evaluate mulligans or when to switch to an Inkmoth Nexus plan over a damage plan. It doesn’t have the greatest aggressive strategy when Tempered Steel isn’t in play, but it runs two of the best cards in the format (Shrine of Loyal Legions and Hero of Bladehold) as backups. Even better is that sideboarding Mirran Crusader is not only valid, but helps weaken opponents’ board plans of Ancient Grudge and Acidic Slime against you. You not only gain a powerful nonartifact threat, but one that can actually beat a fast Dungrove Elder start—something few decks currently can.

Here’s a Tempered Steel deck I’ve been trying recently on Magic Online:

[cardlist]

[Creatures]

3 Mirran Crusader

4 Hero of Bladehold

2 Spined Thopter

4 Memnite

4 Signal Pest

4 Vault Skirge

[/Creatures]

[Spells]

4 Dispatch

4 Tempered Steel

3 Shrine of Loyal Legions

4 Glint Hawk Idol

3 Mox Opal

[/Spells]

[Lands]

17 Plains

4 Inkmoth Nexus

[/Lands]

[Sideboard]

1 Mirran Crusader

4 Blade Splicer

2 Spellskite

1 Mikaeus, the Lunarch

3 Celestial Purge

3 Dismember

1 Shrine of Loyal Legions

[/Sideboard]

[/cardlist]

Notice the heavier lean toward normal creatures and away from purely artifact-based rush. Part of that is be-cause of Ancient Grudge, but the other valid reason is that the metagame has evolved in such a way that you can run these cards with little power drop-off. Sure, it may not be optimal to see a Mirran Crusader when you really wanted a Spined Thopter, and I admit it makes the curve worse. However, I’m fully aware of all the games an unchecked Mirran Crusader will win you and how many times Blade Splicer’s extra body makes a big difference against spot removal post-board.

If the metagame remains top-heavy with Wolf Ramp, G/W tokens, U/W Humans, and U/B control being the main pillars, along with a couple of other valid strategies, Steel is situated for a comeback. The bad Red match is gone, and the best removal and sweepers of the format belong to decks that either aren’t Tier 1 or are largely located in the sideboards of other decks. It isn’t the most consistent deck in the world, and it won’t be a great choice in every metagame, but compared to a week ago, I’m much happier about its chances.




I hope that this enlightened some of you about some of the more common questions I receive. If you disagree or have another question you’d like to see answered down the line, leave a comment or send me an e-mail!

Josh Silvestri

Email me at josh dot silvestri at gmail dot com

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