When I wrote last week that I wasn't sure what I was going to play when I submitted my article, I wasn't joking. The format had three clear pillars that were becoming defined, and the question was whether I could beat them. A fourth was creeping closer in the form of Wilderness Reclamation, but the tools that worked against Simic Ramp and Azorius Control work well against that deck as well.
Cards like Thought Erasure, Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi, Time Raveler seemed exceptionally good against everything but Red, and Esper has a history of beating up the Mono-Red decks. The question in my mind was… could I build a version of Esper that got there?
This version of the deck leaned on the cards that seemed best in the metagame for last week, which conveniently were not heavy on Black. Narset is absolutely terrifying for Simic Ramp, which frequently can't function under a Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils combo. Both planeswalkers also do work against Azorius, and Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord meant that the deck could actually eventually win going long. And with such powerful removal, Red was a cakewalk!
My first builds actually cut Hero of Precinct One, but when I realized that I liked Deputy of Detention a lot in the format, I added it back in, because of Sorin. Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord and Deputy of Detention is a combination I've played several times in Standard, and it makes opponents' lives miserable. When the Vampire lord can bring back a removal spell is when he becomes a true control planeswalker. The random lifelink and pinging of opposing planeswalkers like Teferi or Vraska doesn't hurt either. Ultimately, if I took out Sorin, I would probably take out Deputy of Detention.
I won the SCG Open, somehow also won the Standard Classic, and every match I played that weekend.
And then I woke up from that dream:
The tools were all there, but Heliod almighty the mana is bad. Even trying to tilt away from black as much as possible, the deck was just always playing turns behind Mono-Red Aggro. Being on the draw made matchups against Simic and Wilderness Reclamation worse because Thought Erasure sometimes can't be cast before turn three.
If you're a Ride or Die Esper Hero fan, this is where I got to. I have plenty of thoughts, but won't spend any more of my word count on the deck. If you do want to talk about it, hit me up on Twitter and I'm happy to talk through any changes you're thinking about.
Firmly off Esper, I sighed and picked up what I knew I could learn the fastest: the aggressive deck. Normally I favor more white or green creatures, but the best token maker in the set was a red card, so I had to register Anax, Hardened in the Forge. With all the Shocks and first strike running around, I felt like the slightly bigger version was going to be better for the mirror, and that Torbran, Thane of Red Fell would provide a second way to win when the deck didn't draw Embercleave.
When I got to Richmond, we more or less immediately went out to a mix of amazing East Coast Magic players and one awesome French one: Zyla and Julian Henry, Dylan Hand, Mason Clark, Baker Neenan and Jack Pullman, hitting up the much praised Secret Sandwich Society of Richmond. At some point while I was talking with my podcast co-host and soon-to-be Open Finalist Baker "VTCLA" Neenan, we came to three conclusions about Mono-Red: most of its early plays were bad, the deck desperately wanted to hit its first four land drops, and Light Up the Stage was unimpressive but kind of the best we had in many regards. Here's the list we settled on:
The sideboard was something. When I showed up, I had just 11 cards in my sideboard, and the two Redcap Melee were added because playing powerful color hosers from 2019 is the way to build sideboards in 2020. Embereth Shieldbreaker never came in even once, including against decks with Witch's Oven. If the point of the deck is to trample over them, then what is the point of wasting time destroying Oven? They'll just find another one eventually anyway.
The next day in the Classic I registered a third Redcap Melee (which is fine-ish?) and a foil Trostani Discordant, because Gerry had found one for me at some point and because #Branding. I think if I were playing on ladder with Mono-Red right now, I probably would include a copy of Embereth Shieldbreaker, just to have an out against something like The Great Henge or Stonecoil Serpent.
We got called for the Round One feature match, where I've been told that for a few brief moments you can see my well done hair and amazing Faerie Godfather T-shirt before switching to the heavy hitters of my team, Ally Warfield and Gerry Thompson. Unfortunately neither of their decks performed in their game threes, so my quick 2-0 over former Angelino, Elliot Darrow, was neither witnessed nor relevant, other than to shoutout a friend in this article. We did however get a high-quality selfie out of it:
After nine rounds, we finished 5-4. To avoid any bad feelings among the team, we all lost the last round and didn't Day Two.
My perspective on Mono-Red after playing it in two different tournaments is that it was well positioned, but is likely to be beat up on now that decks have started adjusting to it. All weekend I said that I wouldn't be playing Mono-Red on ladder, I'd be jamming Wilderness Reclamation. You'd think that none of them showed up in the Top 8 of the Standard Classic because everyone was prepared, but I'm pretty sure everyone who had a Wilderness Reclamation player on their team made Day Two of the tournament.
The deck is not only well suited to beat control decks, it also has the perfect tools for beating Mono-Red: Growth Spiral, to skip ahead one turn, Storm's Wrath, to clean up most of the board, and Scorching Dragonfire, to exile Anax and deny the deck 1/1 Satyr Tokens. Even cards like Brazen Borrower can give the Embercleave deck fits because in many situations bouncing the Embercleave or the card it was equipping to is a blowout.
Another option I'd consider would be Mono-White. The deck was genuinely impressive before Azorius Control was suddenly everywhere a couple weeks ago, and I played James Gustafson in both the Open and the Classic. While it's surprising that a deck built around gaining life isn't heavily favored against Mono-Red, this Mono-Red deck is an Embercleave combo deck, not a Burn deck, and can actually kill people from high life totals relatively easily if they can't stop the creature. Aaron Barich suggested playing Gideon Blackblade in the main deck to improve the matchup against Azorius and Temur Reclamation, and honestly that seems like it could swing a couple matchups from unfavored to even. If that's the case, it isn't clear to me what its bad matchup is at that point.
Unfortunately I don't have much of a reason to return to Standard for the next week, because I'll be playing tournaments in Phoenix for four days. First, hopefully getting into the Player's Tour via Last CHANCE Qualifiers, or playing either PTQs or the Grand Prix for the rest of the weekend if I don't.
With Standard to prepare for, my Pioneer testing has been, umm, lacking, to say the least. Fortunately Mono-Red is a deck that wins or loses very quickly, and I was able to watch a lot of Ally's matches on Day One.
Looking at Pioneer, the obvious breakout deck was Inverter of Truth, which gained all the hype last week in the run-up to Nagoya, Brussels and Richmond, and proved that it definitely could hang. In the run-up to those tournaments, Yoman5 predicted that people "should respect it, but won't." That seemed to be a rare misevaluation from him on Wednesday when everyone on Twitter talked about the deck, but he came out looking like a genius when, despite all of the attention it received, the deck still took down a large amount of the Top 8 slots across all three tournaments.
Watching it all weekend though, it became clear that the combo, while powerful, takes time to set up and can be exploited. Just like Splinter Twin before it, the deck is fundamentally a midrange deck that can close the door instantly. Its maindeck has a smattering of answers for potential problems (Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, Hero's Downfall and Drown in the Loch), but any blind spots from its reactive cards must be fixed in the sideboard, or powered through by trying to set up the combo quickly. Even a little disruption, backed up by threats that they have trouble dealing with, feels like it can dominate the deck as it's currently built.
With that in mind, for the plethora of Pioneer I'm planning on playing in Phoenix this weekend, these are the decks that I have ready to go:
If there's one thing that was hammered in to me during Richmond, it's that Dimir Inverter has trouble with three-drops. Revolt can be hard to enable, which makes Fatal Push a non-answer relatively often. Drown in the Loch is frequently about the same unless the opponent is also a more instant and sorcery-heavy deck, and there aren't many copies of Hero's Downfall, if any, in the maindeck. Ally herself was playing multiple Thief of Sanity in the sideboard that won games single-handedly because her opponents couldn't kill it.
Meanwhile, most everything in Dimir Inverter loses to Spell Queller. Sure, they can still resolve Dig Through Time, but when the cards they need to win the game are all Spell Queller targets, the deck has to actually run cards into three open mana just to attempt to win the game usually.
On top of all of that, Spirits does one thing exceptionally well: protect Spell Queller. It doesn't have as many ways in Pioneer as it does in Modern, where Drogskol Captain doubles as both a Lord and a way to grant Queller Hexproof, but it still has four Mausoleum Wanderer, three Rattlechains and three Selfless Spirit.
The biggest question in my mind at the beginning of the week was whether the green was worth the splash. Playing 12 green duals is not trivial, and it essentially plays them for just the four Collected Company. Between data from last weekend, where it was a full 10% better than Azorius Spirits, and the rise in the mirror, the answer seems like an easy "Yes."
The best disruption in the format, bar none, is Thoughtseize. It's a major factor in why Mono-Black Aggro has remained relevant in Pioneer since the first couple rounds of bannings: a pile of Recursive Savannah Lions is usually "good enough" when running the opponent out of key resources with discard and removal spells. Sure, this was a known quantity previously, but Inverter of Truth decks will still have a lot of trouble game one. Post-sideboard Mono-Black can adjust to Cry of the Carnarium by bringing in larger threats.
Meanwhile, the rest of the format is adjusting to Inverter: sweepers are getting cut, and spot removal needs to be big enough to deal with planeswalkers, Inverter of Truth, The Scarab God and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. A deck like Bant Spirits might race Inverter of Truth well, but most of its creatures look fairly embarrassing when they have to block, and Spell Queller is usually reduced to a 2/3 flier with flash.
The big question seems to be whether Mono-Black wants to be "smooth" or "chonky." The "traditional" build (as much as you can call it that in a format that's three months old) has a very low mana curve and is looking to play out most of its hand by turn three or four and win the game shortly after. It rarely includes threats larger than Rankle, Master of Pranks. "Chonky" really just means "Vampires" in the case of Mono-Black: adding in Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, Champion of Dusk and a host of other Vampires to present the same clock, but die a little less to Cry of the Carnarium.
My bet is on the lower-curve one. Giving Inverter of Truth more time seems like a mistake, and good players have told me that the biggest lesson they learned since the combo came out is that it's almost always correct to just go for it. A 6/6 flier is massive, and most decks don't have a way to interact with the Thassa's Oracle portion of the combo. Because of this, I would rather be going faster than trying to also amass some value with Champion of Dusk.
Story time: in the month after War of the Spark had been released, powerful cards like Narset, Parter of Veils and Karn the Great Creator took over Modern in the biggest shake-up to the format we had ever seen. Clearly, a colorless combo in The Tron Format that could lock opponents out of playing the game completely was too powerful for Modern. A Blue control combo (Narset, Parter of Veils and Teferi's Puzzlebox) that locked opponents out of ever drawing a card would also draw too much hate and get a ban.
Thinking myself very smart, I made a bet with Ryan Overturf that a piece or pieces of at least one, if not both, of those combos would be banned by the end of the year. The loser would have to play a deck of the other's favorite color combination (Selesnya or Grixis) in the first major tournament after the bet.
In retrospect, it looks kind of silly, but only because the rest of 2019 Magic was so much better than anything we've seen printed in more than a decade.
I was proven right when they did ban Mycosynth Lattice… just two weeks after the bet was over. Clearly, Ryan paid someone at Wizards to wait, but I can't prove it.
Like I mentioned earlier, Thief of Sanity was actually an all-star against the Inverter combo decks. Unintuitively, putting cards into the Dig Through Time deck's graveyard is actually super effective against them, because it prevents them from comboing off successfully. A five-card library is essentially deterministic, whereas a twenty-card library means that Inverter of Truth barely does better than a Traumatize would have. Amusingly, Thief of Sanity can also take the combo if you're so lucky.
Honestly, I'm playing this deck at some point this weekend because I have to, but there is some sort of merit to some of the things going on here. I don't think that four Bonecrusher Giants in Pioneer is one of them, but what's the point of winning a bet if Ryan can't make me play some truly terrible cards? The last time he scribbled something on a napkin, Ally Warfield crushed back-to-back tournaments with Selesnya Eldrazi. It's possible that he's just on to something that the rest of us aren't.
Some cards are probably just way too out there though.
There you have it. I'll report back next week on where Pioneer is at and how I would approach the format going forward, checking in on all the decks I talked about (and maybe some Gideon of the Trials spice, if I can find the cards). As I write this, I'm currently on my way to Phoenix to play in the tournaments, and I'll be around the event all four days. By the time this goes up, I'll be at the Phoenix Convention Center already, so come find me and say hi!
Nick Prince is a competitive Magic player and member of the L.A. Gayming Society leadership team.
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