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Compulsive Research – Adapting B/W Tokens to a Changing Metagame

By Zaiem Beg

Much has been written on this site about B/W Tokens, but if you were to look at an article just a few weeks ago and rely on it as your sole preparation for an upcoming PTQ or Grand Prix, you would be missing out on a Standard format that’s changed rapidly in the last eight days.

Standard has by and large become a giant melange of midrange decks or decks that were flirting dangerously close to being midrange (see LSV’s article on why Midrange is Terrible). Loosely categorizing decks in Aggro/Control/Combo/Midrange decks, we had the following breakdown:

Aggro:
Kithkin
Blightning
B/W Tokens
G/W Tokens

Control:
Five-Color Control
Faeries

Combo:
Sanity Grinding Mill

Midrange:
Jund Ramp
G/B Elves
Esperlark
Boat Brew

Even Faeries is more of an aggro/control deck and Five-Color Control isn’t a traditional control deck; the 5cc player will tap out more often than control decks in the past have because the cards they’re tapping out for (Broodmate Dragon, Cruel Ultimatum) are simply more powerful than anything their opponent can do.

Combo was essentially a non-factor. Sanity Grinding was not a particularly good deck, though it was fun to run through the gauntlet. It was a fringe combo deck at best and certainly not tier one and probably not tier two.

So with Sanity Grinding out of the picture, most of the metagame comprised of decks that had redundant, overlapping threats.

For example, Boat Brew could draw Ranger of Eos or Reveillark or Siege-Gang Commander and it didn’t really affect their game plan much if they drew one of those threats instead of the other. So if you took away their Ranger of Eos in their hand, they would essentially shrug it off and just play a different threat. Similarly, B/W Tokens could get the job done with the combination of any threat (Bitterblossom, Cloudgoat Ranger, Spectral Procession, and sometimes even Finks/Redcap/Knight of Meadowgrain/Sculler) and support card (Ajani, Glorious Anthem). Again, hand disruption was fairly mediocre against these decks, since getting one threat didn’t really negate their strategy and they could just plod on and beat you anyway.

What this meant is that otherwise good cards were not well-positioned for the environment. We have good hand disruption in Thoughtseize and Tidehollow Sculler, but Thoughtseize was (correctly) not seeing a lot of play.

Sculler probably saw more play than it should have in B/W Tokens. I was not a huge fan of the card. Its ability to take a card from my opponent’s hand was somewhat irrelevant for the reasons outlined above, and although I was left with a 2/2 attacker after it happened, he was largely just okay. I found myself boarding him out almost every game two, and if you look at the articles about B/W Tokens on this site, most of the sideboard strategies have Sculler coming out for games two and three as well. I understand he served a role, but I don’t think that role was all that necessary.

Fast forward to the metagame with Regionals and GP: Barcelona. Predictably, Alara Reborn brought new technology and new archetypes to the field. Anathemancer was born and decks playing red and black had a powerful tool to take advantage of the mana base craziness that was going on. A better mill deck was created with Turbofog. [I disagree. -Riki]

And for tokens, there was a big target on its head. It had done well at the PTQs that had been played up to that point, and unlike Faeries in Lorwyn block before the release of Eventide, or Affinity in Mirrodin block, B/W tokens wasn’t such a dominant deck that it could fight through waves of hate and still do okay. If the tokens player was unfortunate enough to play against the guy maindecking twenty Pyroclasm effects, they were probably in for a very long day.

And we saw cascade.

I told Riki last week that cascade is begging to be broken. Free spells usually can make for some pretty broken strategies, and we’re starting to see the beginning of that with the Swans combo deck, and I don’t think that’s where it ends.

Jund cascade and Swans combo were developed, and Swans combo in particular really has taken a focused approach to cascade. With Jund decks and Swans decks designed in part to beat B/W Tokens, how does Tokens adapt?

Adaptation #1: Hand disruption is getting better

Decks are moving towards the more traditional route of having a threat that they rely on resolving and then beating you with it, and they are moving away from the overlapping, redundant nature of the previous Standard decks like Boat Brew. Although I had previously advocated cutting Sculler from the maindeck of B/W Tokens, that’s no longer the case. Cascade is essentially two cards in one (occasionally even three, if a card cascades into a lower costed cascade spell), and often their plan revolves around playing a cascade spell and then taking advantage of the spell’s effect in addition to whatever free spell they have.

Swans takes this to an extreme. Both Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa’s and Joel Calafell’s Swans decks play 41 lands, meaning that they get many hands with just one spell and the rest lands. Taking their lone threat with a Sculler or Thoughtseize can really cripple their plans, because the deck is likely to sit there drawing land after land, helpless to whatever opposing strategy is beating them down.

So though I previously would not advocate the use of Thoughtseize in B/W Tokens, I think it’s gone from “marginal sideboard card maybe, but does it really accomplish what you’re trying to do?” to “hand disruption is essential and this is the best card for the job.” I don’t think it’s maindeck material, but there should definitely be room for it in the board.

Adaptation #2: Have a way to deal with non-red board sweepers

Burrenton Forge-Tender was the sideboard card of choice for board-sweeping purposes, as the board sweeping was limited to Volcanic Fallout and occasionally Infest or Jund Charm. Now people are playing more Cloudthresher and even Hurricane to sweep the board, which Forge-Tender is powerless to stop. In addition, decks are doing a better job of anticipating Forge-Tender, maindecking cards like Terror (instead of Terminate) to kill it, then sweeping the board. Forge-Tender is a perfectly fine card to bring in since it does so much more than shut off Volcanic Fallout, but it shouldn’t be your sole answer to board sweepers.

Although Forge-Tender does other things like block Figure of Destiny or Bloodbraid Elf, board sweepers are more important than those effects and Mark of Asylum is an effective counter to any Cloudthreshers or Hurricanes that might come your way. Although I’m not a fan of “do nothing” cards, Mark is fine against board sweepers of all kinds except for Infest, and if the sweepers effectively shut off your deck’s plan, then you need a way to combat that.

Adaptation #3: Enchantment removal is getting much more important, and you might need to kill some artifacts, too.

I loved having one Wispmare in the board for the mirror, as I could blow up opposing Bitterblossoms and Glorious Anthems and still have a creature that can attack. But with Turbofog coming onto the scene, and Cascade Swans looking to be a real contender, I want to play a little more proactive card in Aura of Silence. Sadly it doesn’t attack, but it does provide a way to destroy opposing Howling Mines, and it does something before your opponents play the artifacts or enchantments you need to deal with. If they don’t have two mana open when they Bloodbraid Elf into a Seismic Assault, they can’t play it if there’s an opposing Aura of Silence on the table. The other thing I like about it is that it’s good if you draw it in multiples, and overall I’ve found it to be a little better than Wispmare in the mirror as well.
If I ran B/W Tokens this weekend, I would play something close to this:

WB Tokens

Tokens may still be the best deck in the format, or at least it’s close. These aren’t earth-shattering changes, but they are subtle changes that make a huge, huge difference in your matchups, especially if you’re going to go seven rounds at a PTQ (or fifteen rounds at a Grand Prix!)

Next Stop: Grand Prix Seattle
Well, it’s actually Grand Prix Tacoma. I’ve been anticipating this Grand Prix since the day it was announced, and the festivities are starting. Grands Prix are always exciting, but this one is truly special. People are starting to trickle in from out of town, we’re having barbecues and dinners scheduled for the visitors to Seattle, and the excitement is mounting. Adding to the fun is that almost all of the locals playing in the Grand Prix have prepared for the event by growing a truly hideous moustache (as moustaches tend to be). And the weather in Seattle in May is generally amazing, so visitors here should find the sun and warm-but-not-too-hot temperatures to be quite suitable. I can’t wait! If you see me, please stop by and say hello, despite the fact that my facial hair may make me look like someone you wouldn’t trust around your children. Or your grandparents. Or anything
of value.

Sketchily,
-Zaiem
zaiemb gmail com

 

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