"Encase" you missed it, I did a fairly detailed bit of storytelling as to how I qualified for the Pro Tour at the Salt Lake City, UT #RPTQ on [MichaelJ] Monday. You can read the first part of "Just Encase" here.
I'll guess that since my own tournament report, many other discussions, and mentions on this site from Conley Woods, Adam Yurchik, and Jeff Zandi already that you have some idea about what this deck is about. So rather than Reiterate all stuff that everyone has already said, I'd rather just 1) address what I feel the deck is and isn't, 2) post the updated deck list for this weekend, and 3) offer my sincere thanks and props to everyone who helped me get back on the Pro Tour (or even just made me comfortable while away from home while a few time zones away).
There are a few misconceptions around the deck that I think are worth talking about... but that's okay, this is a pretty unusual combination of cards!
After all, how many people in the dark would move from the feeling of "keep" to "snap-keep" looking at a hand of:
Temple of Deceit
Encase in Ice
Master of Waves
When I started working on the deck, I wasn't actually thinking of Esper at all, let alone being an anti-Esper deck. I just liked Bryan Raymer's Mono-Blue deck from States and, along with Patrick, worked to increase the power level of a collection of cards that started off emotionally resonant with me.
Raymer's deck put a Glint in my eye. It reminded me of my own States deck from 10 years ago. It sang to me from a point of nostalgia:
Collectively we transformed Raymer's shell -- a Tap-Out Blue deck with some Dragons and an Inevitable top end -- into a more powerful overall strategy by adding more, different, kinds of Dragons. Prior to Dragons of Tarkir, Planeswalkers like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon or Garruk, Primal Hunter were the most powerful threats you could play in Standard. Today Regents, Stormbreaths, and of course Dragonlords are the most powerful things you can do; and Dragonlords in particular are more powerful than Planeswalkers in general, answering them instantaneously with haste or triggered abilities, and at value.
So essentially we have a suped up Tap-Out Blue deck, that I think, is doing the most powerful things you can do in the current format, regardless of matchup. Does it have a great Esper matchup? Sure! But it also explores deckbuilding space that no other deck has yet charted, and is poised to explore even further and incorporate even more dragons soon!
One of the things that might be confusing to some readers is the concept of a Tap-Out Blue deck. There's four distinct families of Control decks: Tap-Out Control, Draw-Go, Lock, and Combo-Control. For the most part control decks are blue, and we would consider Non-Blue Control decks or flavors of The Rock or PT Junk as different kinds of midrange decks, even if we use names like "Abzan Control".
Tap-Out Control decks can sometimes be mistaken for Draw-Go decks because they also play a lot of cheap Counterspells (you know, just like Draw-Go decks). But the use of Counterspells in Tap-Out decks is simply to prevent the opponent from gaining too much momentum in the first few turns of the game (rather than trying to lock out the end game with an overwhelming hand size, like Draw-Go). The reason? On turn five or six the Tap-Out deck will (at least against a less powerful deck) just "Tap-Out" for a threat that is more powerful than any card in the opponent's deck. To a degree this is a gamble, but depending on how well the opponent has created some momentum in the first few turns... It might not be at all risky.
Back when we originally "Tapped-Out" using Keiga, the Tide Star we were under no illusions that Keiga couldn't be killed... Simply that it would be costly for the opposition to do so. We would get about three cards in exchange (which most opponents were loathe to cede)... and we were probably planning to play another awesome threat to replace Keiga anyway.
Counterspells are interesting in a deck like Mono-Blue Five-Color Dragons. They don't have the goal of locking out the game with any permanence of inevitability. Rather, they are used to manage time both before and after we attempt to take our big turn, and to some degree are interchangeable with other fast interactive cards. We can use Nullify, Silumgar's Scorn, or Voyage's End fungibly to manage the opponent's successful mana consumption starting on turn two. As long as we can get to turn five or six -- usually trading one for one against his mana -- we can get to a Dragonlord. After that we are almost playing a different game: The onus is on the opponent to answer the Dragonlord or lose. Counterspells at this point shift to a role of holding the lead we have just created.
We don't have to have complete control; after all... we're the one with the Dragonlord! A Dragonlord only takes three or four turns to win the game outright. At the point that we're actually untapping with a Dragonlord on the battlefield, the number of cards that are relevant in the opponent's deck might be fewer than the number of cards that are relevant that we actually still have in hand! Think about that for a second.
If we're up against decks like Esper, it is rarely profitable to Counterspell cards like Dig Through Time. The opponent needs to fight our Dragonlord with cards that cost 3-5 mana (Foul-Tongue Invocation, Hero's Downfall, Crux of Fate) or 5-8 mana (opposing Dragonlords [to block] or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon). Almost nothing else in his deck has text at the point that we've resolved a Dragonlord with mana untapped. He can Dig Through Time all he wants, but Dig Through Time costs quite a bit of mana; every time he is using mana to Dig he is putting himself on the wrong side of a future one-for-one fight where I already have an advantage on mana. We can answer his 3-5 mana spells for 2-3 mana, and his 5-8 mana spells for 2 mana; after all this I will often be the one with spare mana to Dig Through Time!
The cool thing about the Esper matchup in particular is that in addition to traditional Tap-Out we can play Draw-Go [into Tap-Out Blue] very effectively.
The toughest thing to do in a control mirror is to stick (and later protect) a threat. It would be generally foolish for an opposing Esper deck to just try to jam Dragonlord Ojutai against us... We have Disdainful Stroke, Nullify, and Silumgar's Scorn before we even have to start thinking about Counterspells that cost more than two mana. Sticking a Dragonlord cold is just not very likely.
Thoughtseize, while relevant, is not particularly helpful for this purpose, either. The problem with Thoughtseize is that the opposing Esper deck never has either more Thoughtseize + threats + mana than we have Counterspells + mana; nor more Thoughtseize than we have Dragonlords + Havens. Therefore Thoughtseize has a hard time clearing the path: There is always a redundant threat or answer from either the same or opposite direction on our side to foul the opponent's ability to stick / get through a way to win. The opponent would need to draw many Thoughtseizes and execute on lots of them in a short window to win a game this proactively.
I did think that Esper would be the most successful deck at a macro, and I expected to play against it more than once. Though I only played against it once, luckily it was for the title.
I actually thought that Red Aggro decks would be the second most popular kind of opponent, and that was the matchup I practiced against most... Out of respect.
Our deck has a decent matchup in the main and an excellent matchup sideboarded against Red Aggro decks. I was reasonably confident against them, but that was largely borne of countless hours of testing pre- and post-board against Red Aggro, ultimately choosing a very precise mix of threats and answers.
My friend Zvi Mowshowitz wondered if I should get a game loss for failure to un-sideboard when he saw my deck.
Encase in Ice is not so bad. It is no worse, really, than a card like Roast or Draconic Roar in other archetypes. It's a card that has text more-or-less when you need it to; and when it doesn't? You're probably crushing them!
Encase in Ice is good against Red Aggro because you just want to have any kind of interaction in the first few turns, and it is a reasonable 1-for-1 even against cards like Eidolon of the Great Revel. You just need time to not get blown out! It has the secret superpower of going Wonder Twins with Master of Waves in sideboard games, and is therefore a slot-efficient main deck card. Encase in Ice is one of your best cards against Abzan Aggro (one of your toughest matchups), though precariously so because of Dromoka's Command.
Before you dismiss my claim about having a pretty good matchup against Red, think about all the ways life can go wrong for a red player instead of all the ways life can go wrong for me. Who has the more erratic mana base? Who is punished more for having to play a Temple on the first turn? If I 1) go first, and they 2) don't have a one drop (double digit games there already) I am a huge favorite to win. Of course I am a dog in games where they go first and my first play is turn three! Which of the two is mathematically more common? Though it isn't the most consistent line, there is just the old "put two counters on Crucible of the Spirit Dragon" route... You can get Dragonlord Dromoka out a turn early; which is tough for the Red Aggro player.
Plus, we play as many as twice as many sideboarded games as Game Ones!
I played five sideboarded games against Red Aggro in Utah, and won four of them. I kept only one seven card hand.
That's the secret.
You can't settle for hands that just have trump cards.
You need to force interaction (ideally Omenspeaker, then Encase in Ice, then one of the fast non-permanents) in the first few turns to ensure that you live long enough to hit your trump cards before the game is out of hand.
It is not only okay but essential to mulligan into hands with sufficient Defensive Deck Speed against Red Aggro... That is where a lot of the percentage comes from. Luckily you have a ton of Temples and Omenspeakers to fix your future draw steps and chain you into relevant threats and answers even when down a card or two.
How good are the sideboarded games?
Think about it from a Red Aggro player's perspective. Imagine someone told you (as a Red Aggro player) that your opponent was going to be a deck composed entirely of excellent mana, Omenspeakers, Ecnase in Ice, Master of Waves, and Baneslayer Angel. Would you feel this were a slam-dunk matchup?
I try not to be too confident agaisnt Mono-Red in any format, but I can tell you I practiced this one a ton and was very comfortable flying across the country given the thought that it might be the second most popular deck.
Well, you lost one, dummy.
I am not claiming an 80% win rate or anything (though, I suppose that's exactly what I put up in Utah)... But I am reminded of the wisdom of my Level One inheritor Reid Duke here:
"... most people play their worst when games aren't close. They either Lose Hope or they give up completely when things look bad. They get overconfident and careless when everything seems to be going their way."
-Playing from Ahead, Playing from Behind
I mulligan'd into Omenspeakers into multiple Masters. At one point I was so excited I was Scying into a second Master of Waves that it just never occurred to me to push the Dragonlord Ojutai I had seen. I didn't have the mana to cast it! And given that I had seen my next two draw steps, I would never have the mana to cast it! I simply screwed up and should have pushed Ojutai to the bottom of my deck.
Did my opponent still have to draw like a hero from there? He did! And he did!
In fact, Travis beat me like a drum! So I am not claiming that I would have beaten him if I had played that Scry correctly, but I certainly would have been in a better spot than stuck with multiple un-cast-able Dragons in my hand, locking myself into at least one draw that wasn't going to be a land.
Focus being an awfully important Magic skill.
III. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver may not be the hero Esper is looking for...
I played the one Negate just for Ashiok out of the sideboard.
In the "my entire deck" versus "Ashiok" fight we are already a heavy favorite. Even if the opponent 1) goes first, 2) has [his one?] Ashiok, and 3) has the mana for Ashiok we have many Silumgar's Scorns to answer. After that turn we also have many Dissolves that can fight Ashiok on curve or faster; Negate is just another card that can fight Ashiok at better-than-even mana, potentially on turn two.
But even a resolved Ashiok isn't the end of the world. Like any Planeswalker, Ashiok is fundamentally vulnerable to our strategy of mana advantage / un-counter-able Dragonlords. Having your nigh-Ultimate Ashiok stolen by an un-counter-able Dragonlord Silumgar is a lost game for any mage. Just stealing an Ashiok with anything under it and blowing it up for a Dragon is probably more than good enough, as it gets the problem off the battlefield, possibly at great profit.
That said, I do respect an Ashiok, and given the fact that the world now knows about this deck, I would suggest some additional anti-Ashiok Dragon action in the next version (see below).
Multiple mages, some of whom I respect greatly, have suggested moving Omenspeaker to the main.
This would be a weak inclusion as it would just turn on the opponent's Bile Blights. One of the advantages of our deck is that the opponent will often have many dead cards. There is just no reason to cut into that count for a generally low power card.
The day after I posted the list my longtime friend and poker great Dave Williams posted a 14-1 record in MTGO queues… With a loss to Bant Heroic only.
As I said in the Monday article I was consistently behind against Jack Stanton playing Abzan Aggro; this was -- more than anything else -- due to games he started on Warden of the First Tree, especially on the play.
Because we don't have any one drops we start off behind essentially automatically against anyone who does have one drops. We can manage that over the course of turns 2-4 or 2-5 using our other interactive spells; and in the case of red (or some green) opponents can catch up with Encase in Ice.
I think Abzan Aggro is somewhat solveable. If we side into a configuration with 4 Encase in Ice and 4 Icefall Regent, I think we have a much stronger shot in sideboarded games than I would have had in Utah. Andrew Boswell, one of the Abzan Aggro players I respect the most, assures me that Icefall Regent is a great card against his deck, and that is the direction we should go.
Bant Heroic is a different animal, though. We can't Encase in Ice their white one- or two-drops, and they start off just as fast! Even if we devoted 4 or more sideboard cards it is unlikely we could get to a 60% post-sideboard matchup (which itself is still not good enough to reach positive expectation). So, at Patrick's urging… We're just hoping to dodge that one. Bant Heroic is not a popular archetype relative to other top decks (generally less than 10% of the field), so we have to suck this one up if we want to go forward with Crucible of the Spirit Dragon.
Earlier this week Patrick and I worked through the updated list on Top Level Podcast.
3 Perilous Vault
I wanted a third Perilous Vault for Utah but couldn't decide what card to cut from my sideboard to make room. The answer was to cut a main deck card! Previously this was Voyage's End, which was the second-weakest card in the main.
2 Dragonlord Atarka
For almost all intents and purposes, Dragonlord Atarka is just a faster Ugin, the Spirit Dragon that we can cast off of Crucible of the Spirit Dragon mana, profitably. This is an especially important change if you think this deck will pick up any popularity as Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is quite bad against this deck while Dragonlord Atarka can snipe a tapped Dragonlord Ojutai and out-fight any of the other Dragonlords.
2 Dragonlord Silumgar
Like Dragonlord Atarka, Dragonlord Silumgar received a two-of promotion up from the sideboard. The second slot came from underperformer, Anticipate.
1 Flooded Strand
When you cut two Anticipates, one of your cards has to be a redundant spell, and the other a redundant land. Flooded Strand seemed like the best choice, making up for Anticipate's graveyard-loss on the Dig Through Time front. Just remember we now have five Islands and five fetch lands exactly!
2 Encase in Ice
This is a very light swap from the 4 Omenspeaker version... We have the same number of fast two mana permanent pip plays against Mono-Red, even if Encase in Ice is slightly weaker. However we get MASSIVE percentage against Abzan Aggro this way. Remember: Mono-Red is a pretty good matchup whereas Abzan Aggro is a challenging one.
2 Icefall Regent
Taking the spots of two of our promoted Dragonlords is the full four-of Icefall Regents. This is just mad respect for Abzan Aggro. Note that all these changes have largely preserved our percentage against Esper and Mono-Red while giving us substantially upgraded sideboard games against Abzan Aggro where we can now go to war with 4 Encase in Ice and 4 Icefall Regents, in addition to our anti-Nissa Dragonlords.
私コラガンが好きになってきました。 pic.twitter.com/bTUJihQIFk— 津村 健志 (@KenjiTsumura) April 28, 2015
"I have become like collagen" according to Bing Translate
1 Dragonlord Kolaghan
You made it buddy! The deck now packs all five Dragons of Tarkir Dragonlords, bidding a fond farewell to young Silumgar, the Drifting Death. Silumgar, the Drifting Death's spot against smaller creatures can be largely subsumed by faster Icefall Regents (while retaining a good bit of resilience against removal); but in return we get a huge upgrade against Esper that we might not have previously needed. Dragonlord Kolaghan can come out of nowhere and kill many Planeswalkers quick like. It is a ferocious new answer to a resolved Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and just as inviolate in combination with Dragonlord Dromoka as Dragonlord Silumgar was (and remains). One thing to note about Dragonlord Kolaghan... Like Dragonlord Dromoka this is an unusual card with multiple un-like abilities. While it won't come up as often as Dragonlord Dromoka (you have three times as many, which all start) you will very likely have many opportunities to take advantage of suboptimal play on the part of the opponent, on account of non-familiarity. Just as some players will try to Silumgar's Scorn your Dragonlord Dromoka, others will hold back Hero's Downfall at nine life thinking that Kolaghan will kill them. ON THE OTHER HAND... You don't want to be the guy casting his second Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver in a game where Dragonlord Kolaghan has resolved on the other side.
That's just asking for it.
Thank you for indulging me in the past two articles. I hope you enjoyed them and have gotten at least a little bit of a kick out of an unusual new deck. The credit is largely falling on me, but as I've tried to emphasize from the start, this was a group effort, including people who didn't even know they were working towards the same goal.
I would especially like to thank:
Danny OMS was the first person to suggest I travel to play in my RPTQ; Katherine was the one who let me ;)
Gerry's article introduced me to Raymer, who became such a productive collaborator. Gerry was also the first person to suggest the Master of Waves sideboard transformation, which was obviously invaluable.
I am certain I would not have made it back to the Pro Tour (at least this time around) if not for the help of both of my podcast partners. Any of you who listen each week probably already know what I am talking about but I am the luckiest podcaster on Dominaria.
The Utah guys (minus Pikula, who was merely a Utah fellow traveler) went above and beyond, bent over backward, bought pizza… I don't know what else to make me and Chris welcome in their land. I have traveled to many cities to play Magic but I have never had an experience like this. Jack and Aaron opened their homes for us. Jack picked me up and dropped me off at the airport. Mike bought gigantic pizzas and pitchers of beer. Julian was like a master cybernetic Puppeteer (with a MacBook)... The entire state's Magic community seems to rely on him and I can see why. Thank you so much to all of Utah for their hospitality. I am so grateful.
Lan D Ho
Local friends of mine, and office mates of Patrick's that offered cards, late-testing advice, tweaks to the deck, and so on. I was better for every one of their suggestions.
Props to all.