So where are the planeswalkers?
It’s hyperbole, I know. A lot of the lists that we’ve seen hitting the top tables at big events in the first couple weeks of Innistrad Standard have featured any number of planeswalkers, with [card liliana of the veil]Liliana[/card] being the major contributor to the planeswalker numbers. We also have [card elspeth, knight-errant]Elspeth[/card] in “Humans” builds, as well as the occasional Jace, [card karn liberated]Karn[/card], or Garruk.
This week I’m checking in with a nominally “Bant” build that I’ve been enjoying a great deal. There are no [card]Birthing Pod[/card]s cluttering up this deck – although you should trust that I’ve been trying to get those suckers to work out for me. Instead, it features some Swords, some Skulls, and a pairing of planeswalkers I haven’t yet seen at work in Standard.
Three tests to take on
Before we check in on the new list I’m suggesting, we want to think about the environment we’re bringing it into.
Actually, that’s a pretty circular way to discuss the deck, as if I’d had the idea in isolation and then tried to fit it into the metagame. Of course, a lot of us do just this kind of thing, even when the deck ends up being utterly inappropriate for the “task” presented by the likely opposition.
Really, we want to look at what we’re going to be competing against, and then use that to guide our deckbuilding process. Here are a few of the major “tests” the metagame challenges us with right now:
The Lily test
Although calling it “the Lily test” may add even more to the “Lily is the next Jace” hype, it’s a fair name for it. Where Jace had his bouncing, Lily has her sacrifice effect. It’s a little less dire in its board impact than the bounce, since Jace could disrupt the creature of your choice, whereas Liliana’s ability hands that choice off to your opponent.
Of course, they’re stuck sacrificing the thing, which is annoying.
The upshot here is that your strategy needs to survive the Lily test if it’s going to be any good. If you’re not relying on creatures, then that’s pretty good for you – as long as you have some way to deal with Liliana as she’s forcing you to discard and before she goes all “inverse [card]Fact or Fiction[/card]” on your permanents.
In contrast, if you are relying on creatures, then they need to be able to impact the board despite her sacrifice effect. This could be a function of their sheer quantity, which is one of the drivers toward tokens-style swarm decks. It could also be that the creature in question has haste or a relevant effect on entering (or leaving) the battlefield.
Or, to put it another way, Lily is why [card]Mirran Crusader[/card] suddenly became the saddest panda in the world. I was excited about taking a Sword-wielding Crusader up against Solar Flare builds, right up until the first time Liliana sacrificed my Crusader out from under me.
The card advantage test
This test is always present in any real Standard environment, but it’s been accentuated by the presence of flashback and various interactions with graveyard. The question is no longer simply “Can I deal with that [card]Inferno Titan[/card]” or even “that [card]Grave Titan[/card]” or “those stupid [card squadron hawk]Hawks[/card].” Instead, the question is “Can I deal with an [card]Unburial Rites[/card] bringing back a [card]Sun Titan[/card] that brings back a [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] that brings back [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card]? And then can I deal with that again after I sweep the board?”
That first Rites was what… a three for one?
Can your deck deal with that? How so?
Options include outpacing all this card advantage by just aggroing them out of the game, or overloading them with your own card advantage in the form of creatures and tokens that generate more tokens. Or we might, perhaps, attack the current source of major card advantage by going after their graveyard.
Regardless of approach, you need to have some kind of plan for getting past the wall of card advantage that defines Solar Flare and friends right now.
The tokens test
This is a variation on, or perhaps the mirror image of, the card advantage test.
Can you deal with creatures? Can you deal with more bonus creatures following that initial wave of creatures?
One of the restrictions on tapout control at the moment is that sweeping the board may either (1) generate more creatures or (2) leave you vulnerable to someone cashing in a [card]Midnight Haunting[/card] or [card]Shrine of Loyal Legions[/card] at the end of your turn. Or they may even nibble you to death with end-of-turn tokens from [card]Moorland Haunt[/card].
So how do you get ahead of all these creatures and backup creatures? I have one potential approach in the new list, below.
Gideon, Garruk, and some gear
So here’s a list that tries to pass these tests:
Bant Blades[deck]4 Ponder
4 Mana Leak
4 Blade Splicer
2 Memory’s Journey
2 Think Twice
3 Oblivion Ring
2 Sword of War and Peace
3 Day of Judgment
3 Garruk Relentless
3 Gideon Jura
1 Glacial Fortress
3 Hinterland Harbor
3 Inkmoth Nexus
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Sunpetal Grove
2 Celestial Purge
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
3 Timely Reinforcements
1 Day of Judgment
2 Wurmcoil Engine[/deck]
The Bant Blades game plan
So I’ve clearly spilled some green in my white-blue control deck. Why? And how does that contribute to passing the Lily, CA, and tokens tests?
What Gideon and Garruk do
Garruk and Gideon both have something very special in common.
They kill things.
Gideon combines his side job as a [card]Royal Assassin[/card] with the now well-understood power to completely disrupt an aggro game plan by waving his arms and drawing fire to himself – usually a job he survives. Then, of course, he attacks. So Gideon’s job in this deck is to combine massive disruption of aggro game plans with the ability to sometimes act as removal, and to shift into “threat” mode when he’s not otherwise occupied.
Garruk is the reason this deck runs green.
Where Gideon assassinates the tapped, Garruk, while having a more limited scope of targets, doesn’t have to wait for them to commit. I think I intuitively underestimated Garruk’s “fight’ ability since 3 damage didn’t seem that exciting, especially since it has to happen at Sorcery speed.
Consider your likely targets. If you’re playing against Tempered Steel, for example, one of the most threatening cards in the deck is the [card]Signal Pest[/card]. Garruk gets to kill those suckers “for free,” not even taking a hit to loyalty. He also knocks off [card snapcaster mage]Snapcasters[/card] and, lest we forget, can kill a [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] regardless of size, simply by targeting it. That last one is super handy, and has helped me de-Titan an opponent’s board.
…and while Garruk himself is not a threat in the manner of Gideon, he’s probably a better threat overall, since he can generate tokens and have them fight, rather than entering the fray himself. Those wolves – either the 2/2s or the 1/1s – are excellent Sword-carriers, too.
Notably, both Gideon and Garruk help dodge the Lily test, Gideon by not actually being a creature in his “rest” state, and Garruk by just making more creatures.
They both also help fight tokens by dint of their disruptive and threat-generating powers.
Why War and Peace beats Feast and Famine
It may seem curious to have [card sword of war and peace]War and Peace[/card] in the main deck and [card sword of feast and famine]Feast and Famine[/card] over in the sideboard, especially given that the main deck is so clearly tilted toward the Solar Flare matchup.
Overall, however, [card sword of war and peace]War and Peace[/card] are the best choice for “default maindeck sword” – at least for this deck right now. [card sword of war and peace]War and Peace[/card] is far and away the best choice against your aggro opposition, as it can gain you life, and it makes the creature hoisting it immune to many of the creatures and removal spells played by the current crop of aggro decks.
On top of those considerations, [card sword of war and peace]War and Peace[/card] remains a solid choice against Solar Flare and other potential control opponents. Sure, we’d like to be eating their hand and gaining mana advantage by untapping their lands…but piling in tons of extra poison counters while ducking certain kinds of removal is pretty sweet, too.
In contrast, [card sword of feast and famine]Feast and Famine[/card] is pretty dismal in most of the aggro matchups. Your guy is slightly bigger, sure…and if you connect, that’s pretty neat. Or it would be, if you weren’t being burned and stomped out of the game.
Thus, [card sword of war and peace]War and Peace[/card] gets the main deck nod, and [card sword of feast and famine]Feast and Famine[/card] waits on the bench for a chance to punch Solar Flare in the face.
So how do we deal with that graveyard-based card advantage? It’s kind of a pain to deal with, and no amount of card draw will keep up with your opponent being able to play many of their cards twice.
I initially tested [card]Purify the Grave[/card]. The obvious flaw in ever running Purify is that it is a very, very specific card. It does one thing – remove stuff from the graveyard. The more subtle flaws is that even with the two-for-one possibilities of a flashed back Purify, you’re always behind in the flashback and reanimation card advantage game.[card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] is obviously a solid choice, since it can hack the second half off of many potential two-for-ones in one go by sweeping your opponent’s graveyard. And it may even be a good idea to run [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] as a pure article of graveyard hate…but I preferred not to. Without black present to get a card off of its use, [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] was not super exciting, being a sort of overcosted [card]Tormod’s Crypt[/card].
…but once I got over the feeling that I was somehow “handing off” cards to my opponent, I realized that [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] was a lovely – and versatile – bit of graveyard hate.
It’s highly likely that intuitively, even if you know better factually, it feels wrong to cast [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] on your opponent.
“But I’m letting them use their cards again!”
Well, yes-ish, but really no.
Let’s start from the basis that you’re only hitting them with [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] because they have cards you want to deny them access to. These are going to be either flashback cards or reanimation targets. So clearly, those cards are “active” right now, meaning they represent card advantage that will be realized as soon as the mana cost is paid.
By shuffling those cards back into their library, we’re denying them some amount of card advantage. If you Journey a reanimation target out from under [card]Unburial Rites[/card], you fizzle the Rites – so that’s half that card gone. Similarly, if you were to Journey away a Rites that was in a graveyard already…well, that’s the flashback half of the card gone. You’re effectively converting a bunch of two (or more!) for ones into simple one-for-ones.
Once the cards are in their library, we’re back into “milling logic” territory. That is, they might see the card again, but that has no impact on their card advantage status – just like milling their top ten cards with [card]Sword of Body and Mind[/card] does not deny them card advantage.
So, with that little side discussion out of the way, why do I like Journey?
Second, but listing it first – it’s versatile. While it’s mostly a weapon against opposing graveyard-based card advantage, Journey can also be used to filter some of your more useful cards back into your deck – copies of planeswalkers that your opponent has countered, for example. Given that the deck runs four copies of [card]Ponder[/card], it’s not unreasonable to actually see these cards again.
First and most important, each pass by [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] wipes out three cards. Even with the flashback, Purify was only a two-for-one at best…and since you’re taking out “half” of a card each time, it’s more of a one-for-one. In contrast, this logic places each casting of [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] at the clearance of some one and a half cards from your opponent, which makes it a pseudo three-for-one if you flash it back.
I’d expect each new weekend to bring with it some novel archetypes, at least for the next few weeks, so all sideboarding is a little bit notional right now. Here are some suggestions for the current crop of known opponents.
+2 [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card]
-2 [card]Sword of War and Peace[/card]
+2 [card]Celestial Purge[/card] +3 [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] +2 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]
-2 [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] -2 [card]Think Twice[/card] -2 [card]Dissipate[/card] -1 [card]Day of Judgment[/card]
+3 [card]Naturalize[/card] +2 [card]Dismember[/card] +1 [card]Day of Judgment[/card] +2 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]
-4 [card]Mana Leak[/card] -2 [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] -2 [card]Dissipate[/card]
+1 [card]Day of Judgment[/card] +2 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]
-1 [card]Memory’s Journey[/card] -2 [card]Dissipate[/card]
Taking a Sword to States
States (or Provincials) is this weekend, and it promises to be the usual broad mishmash of archetypes piloted by the best and quirkiest in your broader local Magic community. If I were going to be anywhere near my home state this weekend, I’d be deeply inclined to bring the two G-men and their trunkload of Swords along for the tournament, hoping to carve my way through a field of Solar Flare, Tempered Steel, and tokens. If you’re looking for something a little different and can put in a few days of practice play, I think the deck will serve you pretty well.
I hope everyone has a great States and Provinicials, and I hope anyone who does decide to take the Blades for a spin will let me know how things went next week.
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