While it hasn't been very long since Pro Tour Magic Origins, Standard has drastically shifted in the last week or two. Grand Prix San Diego saw my friend and teammate Michael Majors steal the show and the title with Blue-Red Sphinx's Tutelage Mill. This archetype was first created by control expert Andrew Cuneo, and is the deck he played to a solid finish at Pro Tour Magic Origins. The deck has consistently been doing well on Magic Online though, which is how it came to my attention. Traditionally, this sort of strategy isn't quite as competitive as the top tier decks, but looking at day two of Grand Prix: San Diego, Majors was the only player running the deck. By now, we all know how that worked out for him.
The funny thing is that even Majors himself disrespected the deck, and he was essentially tricked into playing it. The story may seem hard to believe, but as soon as Majors started stringing the wins together his victory almost seemed like fate…
For Grand Prix: San Diego, my plan was to go ahead and play Abzan Control, a safe choice that I felt comfortable with. Of course part of playing in Magic tournaments, and something that even top players must deal with, is assembling the cards for a deck. Many players do not have a huge collection, which means that their deck choice can be restricted, unless they can borrow, or are willing to shell out a bunch of money for the cards needed for a tournament. This was part of what lead Michael Majors to choose one of the cheapest decks in Standard for the event.
As soon as I landed in San Diego it was, "Hey, Seth - do you have any extra Abzan stuff?"
I didn't have much, but I told him that if he could throw together a copy of Blue-Red Mill, I would consider audibling to that deck so that Majors could play my Abzan Control deck. As it turns out, Majors really did want to play Abzan Control, and it was only because two other friends misplaced their copies of Abzan Control that he was asking me for cards. We were staying at the same hotel, so before I had arrived, he was already scrambling to put together the Blue-Red Tutelage deck. Once I arrived at the hotel, Majors was already asleep.
It was the eight in the morning, one hour before the tournament started… Majors texted me that he desperately needed my help to try and find the best configuration for his deck. Majors had already assembled a good portion of Blue-Red Tutelage. At this moment I had the chance, I could have given up my Abzan Control deck and played the Blue-Red Tutelage deck myself. This was something I seriously considered doing, but I couldn't pull the trigger.
I was scared.
I could see the look in Michael Majors' eyes - he was nervous to play the deck, but not to the degree that I was. This is a large part of the reason why fringe decks don't do well in tournaments: people are scared to play them! It is much more difficult to pick up a deck that has only been played by a single person at one event, as opposed to a deck like Abzan Control, which has been proven over and over - basically since Siege Rhino became legal - to be one of the best decks in Standard.
So Michael Majors played Blue-Red Tutelage. But I actually expected him to do well with it; the week before, I was in a team draft with Majors, and he drafted a deck with three copies of Sphinx's Tutelage! He won all of his matches very easily, and it was the most fun I had ever seen him have while playing Magic. This may have been a large part of the reason he was willing to go ahead and play the deck for the Grand Prix. I would like to think the primary reason that Majors ended up playing the deck, rather than myself, is that I thought he would pilot it better than me. He certainly did play the deck masterfully throughout the event.
Majors and I sat down to write the decklist and discuss it a bit. The experience we had to go off of was the five matches I had played versus Blue-Red Mill on Magic Online. I was able to explain how the deck works, and this is when we debated over card choices. Majors didn't want to stray too far from the list of Cuneo's from the Pro Tour, yet some of the lists from Magic Online actually were not playing any copies of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. This lead to the question of whether this was a choice made for budgeting reasons, or if Jace, Vryn's Prodigy might actually be bad in the deck. Of course when you have Jace, Vryn's Prodigy on turn two, and then immediately flip it, the card is amazing. Majors was able to do this many times over the course of the tournament. What didn't happen as much was Jace, Vryn's Prodigy immediately dying to a removal spell. The issue with playing only four creatures in a deck, is that you are turning on opposing removal spells, which would otherwise be dead cards.
There are a number of matchups where Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is actively bad, yet there are other matchups where it can almost win the game single handedly. For instance, versus Mono-Red Aggro, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is terrible, because it never survives, and lets your opponent be able to use their Searing Bloods, which they couldn't use otherwise. However, against Green/White Aggro it is absurd - their only way of dealing with it is Dromoka's Command, and the Green/White player wants to save those to deal with Sphinx's Tutelage. Even if Jace, Vryn's Prodigy flips and then dies in a turn or two it has done the job already. With both Magmatic Insight and Tormenting Voice it is usually easy to flip Jace, Vryn's Prodigy on turn three. While it is true that Jace, Vryn's Prodigy sometimes doesn't do anything when you draw it later in the game, the upside on the card is so high. The chance that you will play it on turn two and subsequently flip it makes it worth running. To be honest, I wasn't sure at the time if Majors should be playing Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, but on the other hand, the deck without Jace, Vryn's Prodigy just seems underpowered, and Majors was correct to go ahead and play the full four copies of the card.
Here is the list that Majors played to win Grand Prix San Diego:
While Majors did play Jace, Vryn's Prodigy that doesn't mean he didn't make changes from the original list of Andrew Cuneo's. The first card which was cut from Cuneo's list was Dictate of Kruphix. I understand the idea of wanting Dictate of Kruphix in order to draw cards, and force your opponent to go deeper into their deck, but there is a superior card. Monastery Siege is being played by Majors in place of Dictate of Kruphix, though it is true Majors is only playing one copy. Monastery Siege is great because honestly, you don't really want your opponent drawing extra cards, even when you are playing a mill deck. For instance, versus Mono Red, extra cards means extra burn spells, and that is not where we want to be. Monastery Siege allows you to loot which may actually be better than drawing a card, since it helps fuel your delve spells. Of course, the oft-forgotten other mode of Monastery Siege is great versus burn spells.
There aren't that many permanents that this deck plays, as most of the gameplan involves just filtering through your deck. This means that even though there aren't many permanents you are still more likely to draw a given card over the course of a game, because of the amount of card draw. This is what makes a singleton like Alhammarret's Archive so effective. This card is so amazing in this deck, yet there is still only one copy, as you don't want to draw multiples, unlike, say, Sphinx's Tutelage. For those that haven't seen Alhammarret's Archive in action, it really is a delight to play with, and a nightmare to play against. The most obvious interaction is that you draw twice as many cards with all your card draw spells, and Monastery Siege, which can make it almost impossible for the opponent to win given all the card advantage gained over a turn or two. The other application is gaining twice as much life with your lifegain lands, which can be enough to win the game versus red.
The deck has only so much room for interactive spells. These are the cards that help you buy time long enough to trigger Sphinx's Tutelage enough times in order to win. The most important of these cards is Anger of the Gods because it is the best way to stop an early assault, and later in the games casting two Anger of the Gods can be a full blown Wrath of God. There are also some temporary solutions to creatures, like Send to Sleep and Whelming Wave, which are some of the best ways of giving you more time. Majors has added a second copy of Roast, as there was only one in Cuneo's list. Roast is not only great against the Abzan decks, but Majors was able to deal with an artifact enchanted with Ensoul Artifact with Roast as well (which luckily enough was a Ghostfire Blade).
There are also a couple innovations to the sideboard. The first and most important new addition is Annul. When going over the sideboard we added one Annul, then another, and finally the third copy! While this may seem like a lot there are a ton of decks in Standard using artifacts and enchantments, which is very different than a couple of weeks ago. Without Annul, Majors wouldn't have done nearly as well in the Grand Prix. I am going to take credit for the Disperse in the board, a card which can get you out of tight spots, like when Majors was staring down a Perilous Vault in game three of his semifinal match. The other sideboard slots are pretty self-explanatory. The burn spells all come in against red, which is a bad game one matchup, but you have more ways to deal with their creature's games two and three. The Whelming Wave is primarily for any sort of token strategy and Green Devotion. The Negates come in a lot because after board it is more likely the opponent will be packing more spells that can deal with a Sphinx's Tutelage.
Let me just state the obvious, Michael Majors winning Grand Prix San Diego was no fluke. This deck actually has a very fast clock, and can win pretty easily, as early as turn five. I expect to see plenty more Blue-Red Mill moving forward, so make sure to pick up those Sphinx's Tutelages!
Thanks for reading,