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Feature Article – Play or Draw

Hello everyone. In Japan things are still not completely as they were before, but at least in Tokyo we are in the process of returning to normalcy. I would like to thank everyone for their concern. And we, or at least my friends and I, are extremely grateful for Wizards of the Coast’s decision to hold Grand Prix Kobe and Pro Tour Nagoya in Japan, and for the support of Magic players everywhere.

After finishing up this article, I had plans to visit my family in Osaka before Grand Prix Kobe, and I thought Osaka was probably largely unchanged and carrying on as usual. This is because even immediately following the earthquake there was little damage to the region. If circumstances allowed I was thinking I would like to participate in hanami (flower viewing) because it was the one to two week long cherry blossom season. It seems that the governor of Tokyo thought that the cherry blossom viewing that was going on, in particular among the people who did not have enough electric power in the Kantou region, was inappropriate in the wake of the earthquake. “Inappropriate” is an expression used to describe the bad part of Japanese society, and it is very popular in Japan lately. When you come to Nagoya you might hear it used. If you see people saying this word, “Fukinshin”, they are simply playing a prank and you should just think of them as troublemakers. It is better not to concern yourself with them. Cherry blossoms lit up at night are too beautiful to be expressed with such words.

Well, today’s article will be about the deck I picked up for Grand Prix Dallas, which was Blue/Black Control. I will include my improvement plan for the deck list I used and tips for playing against the format’s four biggest decks. Additionally, I think I would like to write about the very interesting topic that came up in a conversation I had with Guillame Wafo-Tapa and the question of whether to “Play or Draw” that presents itself in games two and three.

In my first article I wrote about Blue/Black Control, but since then circumstances have changed greatly. That is to say that at the time of last year’s World Championships Blue/Black was the dominant archetype, and now thanks to its natural enemy Caw Blade’s reign over tier one decks, it might be better to say that it has been placed at an extreme disadvantage. Nevertheless, there were a few reasons I chose to play this deck.

The first was that it had many good matchups.

Frankly I did not really want to get paired with Caw Blade, but aside from that the other usual decks like Valakut, Eldrazi, Mono Red, Boros and Vampires were all fine matchups. And against RUG and any other deck I could easily advance the game in my favor.

The second was that the deck itself was unreasonably underestimated.

The strength of Blue/Black Control itself is paradoxical, but for many weeks prior it had had some unlikely success. It seemed to me that everyone continued to caution me that attention had turned towards the new core of the metagame, Caw Blade. When it came time to compete in a Grand Prix Trial before the main event, I had not practiced enough for my play to be optimal and my sideboard was poor.

The third reason comes from the GPT I played in the day before the main event. Although I dropped in the third round, I still had the same impressions about the deck. Now, I have judged that I was unaware of the sheer number of times that I would be paired up against my worst matchup, Caw Blade.

First, I will introduce the deck I played at Dallas:

 

My results were twelve wins and three losses, and I made fourteenth place.

For many weeks beforehand I had used a Valakut deck, and I thought these were much better results considering that when I lost the last match of Day One at Grand Prix Barcelona I was not even able to play on Day Two.

The players I lost to were Michael Jacob playing RUG in Round 7 and Brad Nelson playing Caw Blade in Round 8, and then in Round 10 on Day Two I lost to Harrison Greenberg playing White/Green Beatdown. My results including the three rounds I had played in the GPT the day before were as follows:

Vampires: 1-0
Blue/Black Poison Tezzeret: 1-0
Caw Blade: 3-1
Spark Blade: Conceded in the Middle
Blue/Black Control: 2-0
Valakut: 1-0
Boros: 1-0
White/Green: 1-1
RUG: 1-1
Mono Red Beatdown: 1-0

I thought I would play against more Valakut decks and red decks in general, but in reality the amount of Caw Blade far exceeded my expectations. Its overwhelming superiority is central to my impressions regarding the Grand Prix.

Next my thoughts regarding the matchups and sideboard plan for the deck I brought to Dallas.
Versus Caw Blade:

So far there has been the image that for some reason or another American players like Caw Blade, but I will revise this statement. American players love Caw Blade, and this is only merited since it is a very powerful deck. Although I thought that beginning with Day Two Red Beatdown decks were becoming less numerous, I did not completely understand their elimination.

Though this is a bit of an old example, a showdown between Caw Blade and Blue/Black is very similar to the matchup between Faeries and Reveillark in Standard past. When an artifact “Bitterblossom” hits the battlefield, Blue/Black has no completely effective answer. Once you allow it to stick, the game develops into an exchange of equipment and the removal to cope with it, and this puts Blue/Black at an extreme disadvantage.

As a result, the first crucial point of this matchup is your opponent’s second turn, where Stoneforge Mystic or Squadron Hawk are played and the focus is whether or not this goes smoothly. However, this is really just the initial skirmish. Even if this becomes like a game in which Bitterblossom is played on turn two what actually decides the game is not a sword, a hawk, or even Stoneforge Mystic. It’s Jace, the Mind Sculptor. A Jace that reaches the battlefield is far deadlier than a sword-bearing Squadron Hawk or Stoneforge Mystic. Conversely, if your opponent’s plan goes undisrupted when you have only Jace to control the board and a sword gets equipped the game tends to favor your opponent. For that reason, being decisive and not fearing your opponent’s counterspells is paramount. You have many opportunities to view your opponent’s hand, and by accepting the risk of them top decking Mana Leak, you often find yourself in a position where you cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor and they must play their own Jace on their turn to destroy yours. I think that in times like these you want to be on the play. This is because you can almost always derive a huge advantage from being the first one to cast Jace and use his Brainstorm ability. This means that the obligatory three copies of Mana Leak in Dark Blade are very easy to deal with, but playing an opponent with six counters in their deck is a little harder.

To that end, being able to view their hand via hand disruption is a big deal. Grave Titan is a very difficult finisher for them to deal with, and stopping their counters targeting Jace, the Mind Sculptor contributed to my successful results at the Grand Prix many times. If you can gain an advantage through this sort of small interaction this isn’t a difficult matchup at all.

Conversely, in my loss to Brad Nelson’s Caw Blade it was apparent that he truly understood this point. Although I knew he was holding a Mana Leak following my Inquisition of Kozilek, on the fourth turn he tapped out for two Squadron Hawks. That much aggression proved extremely difficult to deal with. This was because even if I resolved a Jace it would be destroyed by the Hawks, and on top of all this a Jace from my opponent would be the worst possible development.

When sideboarding, I removed the generally unhelpful Spreading Seas if I was on the play and made more drastic changes if I was on the draw. This is because it is absurdly important which player reaches four mana first. If I was on the draw and resolved Phyrexian Crusader, a Jace, the Mind Sculptor played on an otherwise empty battlefield could bounce it to lock up the game completely. And if I could not play the Crusader on turn three, there was no value to be gained. The critical turn for Caw Blade is turn two, but for you in this matchup it is turn four. It seems fine to consider this the golden rule of this matchup.

On the play:
IN:

 

OUT:

 

On the draw:

IN:

 

OUT:

 

Versus RUG:
RUG, the deck that comprised half of the Top 8 alongside Caw Blade. I don’t have enough experience playing against this deck to draw any conclusions, but I think this is an advantageous matchup for Blue/Black. As for why…

Blue/Black can easily deal with Lotus Cobra and their critical Titans.

If you look at its matchups against control, only Blue/Black includes hand disruption.

Looking exclusively at the abilities of the Titans in question, Grave Titan has the advantage of being more difficult to remove and also creates tokens.

For these three reasons, unless RUG rapidly accelerates their mana in the early turns I think Blue/Black can generally create an advantageous game state. However, you are at a slight disadvantage in a game where your opponent has seven or more mana because of finishers like Inferno Titan and Precursor Golem potentially resolving and sticking around. Of course I think that with control decks, winning via the sheer amount of cards drawn i.e. winning using Jace, the Mind Sculptor is fastest. After sideboarding, I reinforced this same strategy. I may have excessively removed cards that deal with Lotus Cobra, but I think leaving in one Disfigure is a good idea.

IN:

 

OUT:

 

Versus Mono Red and Boros:
There is little or nothing that needs to be said about this matchup. You just need to protect your life total until you can play a Grave Titan. That’s it.

Koth of the Hammer is an extremely difficult card for Blue/Black, but Phyrexian Crusader serves well as an answer and functions very effectively on both offense and defense. You should leave in Mana Leak because Mono Red brings in Molten-Tail Masticore after sideboarding and for Boros’s Sword of Feast and Famine. There has been a trend of not including Sword of Feast and Famine in Boros lately, but I did not trust in that fact overmuch, since when Boros does include them it can be very difficult for Blue/Black. I prepared for the possibility of a Sword with my sideboarding.

The Boros I actually played had only one of the two Swords, and I would like to caution you about the sideboard because, sure enough, there were times when I did not know whether or not it was effective. So, after sideboarding against Boros I included my Sword insurance, Precursor Golem. When I had played Boros in the past I often took out Lightning Bolt versus Blue/Black, but I still wasn’t very confident in this decision. At any rate, I think that Boros is a very powerful deck and caution is merited when faced up against it.
Versus Mono Red:

IN:

 

OUT:

 

Versus Boros:
IN:

 

OUT:

 

Versus Valakut

This deck did not thrive in Dallas, but I think that it has the same power level as Caw Blade. In short, I believe that it is tier one. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I kept Spreading Seas in the main deck because of Valakut, although I side it out in most matchups.

After sideboarding, I add counterspells and incorporate the game plan of removing their Primeval Titans with Memoricide. However, simply put this plan has only a small window of efficacy. Aside from Eldrazi, Valakut generally comes prepared with additional large creatures and when this is not the case they take some kind of countermeasures. It was a good choice at Grand Prix Barcelona where Blue/Black and the Memoricide plan were largely forgotten, but playing this card against Valakut in Dallas was a complete mistake. I could count on it to be somewhat effective, but I plan to replace it in the future.

Side in:

 

Side out:

 

And if there was a Standard Grand Prix tomorrow?
I think I would still use Blue/Black Control. But if you asked me if I would use the same list, my answer would be no. Of course there is the knowledge I have gained from my games at the Grand Prix, and in the current metagame which decks require dedicated countermeasures have changed slightly since then. Most importantly, at the Grand Prix I had a wonderful opportunity to increase my skill with this deck and to add to this article. There, I listened to the opinions of Blue/Black creator Guillame Wafo-Tapa on the subject of his sideboard plan with the deck. The version I started with was a list I had tuned based on his deck from Barcelona, but he didn’t stop there. In the deck he brought to Dallas Wafo-Tapa decided to take out Memoricide and put in Mind Rot, and foreseeing the relative ineffectiveness of Ratchet Bomb against beatdown decks, had adjusted my version to be much better in the current metagame. He was wondering whether to play a 3:1 or 2:2 ratio of Go for the Throat to Doom Blade up until deck list submission on Day One of the event, in the end deciding on the coolest solution: 3:2. Upon hearing this, I spontaneously did an imitation of Kenji Tsumura: “Master!”

With this in mind, if I were to make changes and play in a Grand Prix, my sideboard for Blue/Black Control would have one undecided slot. The question is whether to play a card to deal with Valakut, to take countermeasures against Caw Blade, or to use Ratchet Bomb, a card which is quite effective against Tezzeret decks. I still haven’t come up with an answer, but it might look something like this:

Main Deck Changes
In:

 

Out:

 

Sideboard:

 

Plus one more card against Valakut/Caw Blade.

One more thing: I heard an interesting opinion from Wafo-Tapa:
“When playing Blue/Black I choose to be on the draw because this is best in almost all matchups. Play second in the mirror, against Valakut, and also against Mono Red. I think this is also true against Caw Blade. It’s a very good thing when your opponent mulligans on the play.”

So, what do you think?

Wafo-Tapa and I met in the mirror match midway through Day Two in Dallas. When he chose in game two he decided to play second and when it was my choice in game three I imitated him and decided to draw as well. And even here there was proof that Wafo-Tapa was correct.

Certainly going second in the Blue/Black mirror is advantageous because you can respond by using hand disruption to exhaust their resources. I had this sense in the second game, and my mimicry of his plays in game three further convinced me. But what do you think about the other examples?

Against Valakut I think going second might be best. Your plan is to disrupt their hand and counter spells. I can agree with this assessment.

With Mono Red, playing second is advantageous if you can hit with removal on turn one. But what happens if you don’t have Disfigure in hand?

Versus Caw Blade, there is the simple merit of being the first to have Mana Leak online, and my strategy places a lot of importance on being the first to establish Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn four. Moreover, there is the benefit of being the first to have four mana. Alternatively, you have the chance to play a turn three Jace Beleren which acts like more than one card. However, Wafo-Tapa said that the play pattern of casting hand disruption on turn one, removing Stoneforge Mystic on turn two , and then discarding their Squadron Hawk with Inquisition of Kozilek or playing Jace Beleren on turn three leaves the Blue/Black player with plenty of ways to deal with their threats. I have a feeling this is true.

The most interesting thing Wafo-Tapa suggested was to put in more hand disruption after sideboarding, and I am trying out the sideboard that he theorized.

At present, I haven’t drawn a final conclusion because up until this point I had put together a game plan based on the assumption of playing first, and I used it many times because choosing to play is more efficient. However, after full consideration of the results I think the truth is that going second may be more advantageous.

I’m sorry to say that at this time I can only put this idea out there, but I think that the idea that “choosing to draw is best” is an important theme for those building and playing Blue/Black Control today. I didn’t consider this earlier, but in the current draft environment there are more decks that want to draw than those that want to go first. Next time I write an update Blue/Black Control I think I will also include my thoughts on that topic.

Thank you for reading,
Shuhei Nakamura

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