Back in the Magic Online Championship Finals with Temur

Back in October, I brought Temur Energy to the World Championship in a fledgling Ixalan Standard format. I claimed that it was the best deck out there, and outlined my thoughts on it here. Since then, we’ve had five weeks to brew, fine tune ideas, and gear our decks to beat the top strategies in Standard. Even after all of that time and effort from the community at large, I still believe that Temur is the best deck. It was my choice for Pro Tour Ixalan and for the Magic Online Championship Playoff.


Reiderrabbit, 1st place at Standard MOCS

Temur and the Standard Format

It shouldn’t be a surprise if Temur remains the best deck in Standard.

What I mean is, consider an alternate universe where U/W Approach was the most popular and successful deck on Day 1 of the new format. Players would begin to choose fast aggro, or pack their decks full of Negates and Spell Pierces until the metagame balances itself a bit. The same is essentially true for God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Abzan Tokens, or Mono-Red—these decks are exploitable if you know ahead of time that you’re going to face them.

Temur Energy, however, is a customizable midrange deck that’s capable of adjusting to fight back against whatever its opponents are doing to prey on it. Decks like this almost always improve after sideboarding, and they have a much greater ability to stay on top of a format for a long period of time.

It’s not that Temur is unbeatable. In fact, God-Pharaoh’s Gift, Abzan Tokens, and control decks generally have favorable matchups against Temur. But sideboard cards exist that can attack these strategies remarkably well. So as soon as one of these strategies becomes too popular, the metagame reacts and Temur winds up on top once again.

So in the most simplistic view of today’s Standard, you’re left with three choices. The first is that you can try to outguess the metagame by bringing the right fringe strategy when your opponents are underprepared. The second is that you can choose Mono-Red in order to prey on the non-Temur decks that show up (and to have a generally powerful and reliable deck). The third choice, and the one that over 40% of the Pro Tour Ixalan competitors made, is to play some variety of Temur Energy.

The Temur Mirror

In preparing for this Pro Tour, we faced a fairly well-defined problem (a somewhat predictable metagame based on Magic Online and previous tournament results), with a limited amount of time to split between Standard and practicing Booster Draft. I knew that settling on Temur Energy was a likely outcome, and that it would be counterproductive for me to resist if it became clear which direction the wind was blowing.

In addition to my other preparation, I made the Temur mirror match a top priority. It’s clear that mastering the mirror is critical to the success of an Energy player these days.

If you’re looking for me to present some easy-to-follow secret for winning the mirror, I regret that I’m going to disappoint you.

The games are challenging to play, with complex combat steps and a lot of small decisions—whether to make a Thopter at the end of the turn or save your energy for a Bristling Hydra counter, for example—that really add up. Curving out in the early turns is very important, but so is packing your deck full of powerful late-game topdecks. Planeswalkers are awesome when you’re ahead or even on the board, but can be awful when you’re behind. There are no cards that are great in all situations, and no sideboard cards will swing the matchup as much as you really want them to.

The lion’s share of my effort went into determining whether or not the addition of black would offer a big advantage in the energy mirror. My conclusion is that it’s basically a wash. For every set of 15 games, there would be one game that Temur Black would win with the Scarab God or Vraska that would not have been won by a different 5- or 6-mana card. For every set of 15 games, there would also be one that Temur Black would lose due to the mana inconveniences of adding a fourth color.

I don’t think it’s a mistake to play Temur Black. But so long as I haven’t found irrefutable evidence that the splash gives a significant advantage in the mirror, and so long as fast aggro decks remain a big part of Standard, I’m personally going to choose 3-color Temur.

Beyond color choice, there were plenty of other ideas I tried in order to get a leg up in the mirror. Confiscation Coup is the most powerful option, but is also situational. You can’t simply slam 4 in your deck without putting yourself at major risk of losing to Chandra or Vraska. Cards like Lifecrafter’s Bestiary, Nissa, Steward of Elements, Torrential Gearhulk, and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship can all have a use, but can also be liabilities when the game plays out in a certain way.

Vizier of Many Faces is the most consistently helpful mirror match option, but having double-blue on turn 4 is not trivial for energy decks. Finally, the bottom line about sideboarding for the mirror is that for every card that you bring in, you’re probably cutting a Longtusk Cub, a Whirler Virtuoso, or an Abrade, which are all cards that are totally fine in the mirror match.

Pro Tour Ixalan

Ixalan was the first Pro Tour where all 6 members of my Team Series team—Ultimate Guard—were unanimous about the best deck choice. William Jensen, Owen Turtenwald, Paul Reitzl, Andrew Cuneo, Jon Finkel, and I all played within a few cards of the same 3-color Temur deck list.

Our results were good. Jon missed Day 2, but the other 5 of us all finished 10-6 or better. That said, our Draft results outshone our Constructed results, which wound up being solid but unspectacular. The conclusion was that we had chosen a good version of a good deck, but failed to do that “something special” necessary to get a big edge in an old Standard format.

My personal breakdown was 5-1 in Draft and 6-4 in Standard for an 11-5 finish. I went 4-1 with Temur against Mono-Red, 1-1 against Mardu Vehicles, 1-0 against U/B Control, and 0-2 in Energy mirrors (one 3-color Temur, one Temur Black).

Magic Online Championship

The following weekend was the MOCS Playoff event, a 9-round invite-only tournament where the top two finishers would be invited to the Magic Online Championship Finals. Although I hadn’t hit a home run at the PT, I decided that my best course of action was to spend the week practicing with Temur, fine-tuning my sideboard plans, and adapting my list for the post-Pro-Tour world. (I expected a bit more Mono-Red, Sultai, Mardu Vehicles, and God-Pharaoh’s Gift since these decks had been successful at the Pro Tour. I expected a bit less control and tokens since these decks were not as successful).

I earned myself some last-minute panic by going on a 0-4 losing streak the night before the event. But I knew that I couldn’t be going horribly wrong by playing Temur (not to mention the fact that I had no plan B), so I decided to simply get a good night’s sleep and stick to my guns.

The start of the tournament was no help, as my round 1 Sultai opponent was pummeling me with a Longtusk Cub and a Winding Constrictor before their internet cut out and I won by default.

Round 2 was looking no better as I lost the first game to U/W Approach—one of the worst matchups for my particular build of Energy. Fortunately, I rallied back with good curve-outs topped by a well-placed permission spell in order to win the sideboarded games. I had finally and unequivocally snapped my losing streak!

I again lost the first game of round 3, this time against U/G Pummeler. In games 2 and 3, I had a few turns of holding my breath and hoping my opponent didn’t have it. They did not, and I found myself 3-0.

Round 4 was the closest and most nerve-wracking of the event against Temur Black. I got an early advantage in the first game, but started to sputter out. I just barely crossed the 20-damage finish line before my opponent stabilized the board. I lost a close game 2, and game 3 led up to a flurry of action in the midgame. When the dust settled, I had a Bristling Hydra and no cards on an empty board. But my opponent drew a Whirler Virtuoso with 10 energy, which prolonged the game for half a dozen more turns. This is exactly the type of spot that Temur Black wants to play to, since a topdecked The Scarab God or Vraska essentially ends the game immediately. Fortunately, I dodged bullets yet again, fought through the Whirler Virtuoso, and took the match.

Round 5 was another victory against Temur Black, and round 6 was a nice, quick win over Mono-Red. I felt unstoppable when my opponent bluff attacked their Soul-Scar Mage into my Servant of the Conduit. I blocked, and they buried the creature and passed the turn.

I think blocking is usually the right play in this situation. If the opponent has Shock, the result is the same whether you block or not. The fear is that you allow them to Lightning Strike you instead of your creature, resulting in one additional damage. But this can often be worth it if you prevent them from casting their Rampaging Ferocidon or Kari Zev, Skyship Raider. If you had X-Ray glasses and could see that your opponent’s hand is a Lightning Strike and all lands, then you should take the damage. But in a real world situation—especially if you factor even a small chance that your opponent could be bluffing—I think it’s a good idea to block.

Round 7 was my first loss against the master Marcio Carvalho (kbol_ on Magic Online) in the 3-color Temur mirror. I won game 1, but he defeated me in two close sideboard games. It took some of the wind out of my sails, as I had had solid draws in all three games, and had lost the invincible feeling I’d had one round prior. As I said above, the Temur mirrors can be brutal battles, and the fact that a player like Carvalho brings such a level of proficiency to every combat step makes him very hard to beat when the games are close. Nonetheless, 6-1 with good tiebreakers was a great spot to be, and I kept heart.

Next I was paired down against Craig Wescoe (Nacatls4Life) with Temur Black in round 8. We split the first two games, and just as I was ready for him to deal me the killing blow and end my tournament in game 3, he passed turn 6 without using any of his mana, and without pressing his considerable advantage. Craig had played himself to a favorable position, and was likely just one good spell away from locking up the game. But that turn gave me some breathing room to claw back in. I found a way to kill his Chandra, and eventually won a close game and match.

In the final Swiss round, I took a second loss against Mono-Red. Two or three players would make the Top 8 at 7-2, and my tiebreakers were strong, so I got to spend 20 minutes pacing back and forth in my apartment sweating the result.

The last match seemed to drag on forever, allowing the tension to build and build. I would stare at the screen for as long as I could, then stand up and leave the room, only to rush back in a minute later. After an eternity, the tournament finally updated and I landed in 8th place!

The quarterfinals went smoothly, as I had two absolutely perfect draws to win yet another Energy mirror. I defeated Mono-Black Aggro in the semifinals, which seems like a pretty bad deck to me. To my opponent’s credit, they played well and made close games out of it. I only won game 2 by topdecking my singleton Torrential Gearhulk at the crucial moment.

So I had reached the finals! The top two players qualify for the end of the year Championship, and I had gotten what I came for. But I’m a prideful man and I can never be satisfied until every last opponent has been defeated. It so happened that the one opponent remaining was the same kbol_ who had beaten me in round 7.

Just like our previous match, I won the first game and Marcio Carvalho won the second. Game 3, on the play, I opened on this sketchy hand:

Instead of telling you how the game played out, I’ll leave the question to you. Would you keep this hand? If you answered yes, what would you do on turn 1? I welcome all answers in the comments section!

Either way, it’s a great feeling to be back in the Magic Online Championship finals. It’s the tournament that gave me my start back in 2010 and 2011. Just like in the old days, my cousin Logan (Jaberwocki) Nettles will be competing along with me. There are enough star players in the event that I can’t hope that everyone reading will root for us to win the event. But I will suggest that you make time to watch us play in March of 2018, as it’s sure to be a ton of fun.


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