Recurring Nightmares – Blackfish

The process of arriving at a deck to play at the Pro Tour is a fascinating one—especially when it involves one of the super teams over the past few years. The amount of work required is immense, and the effort required to overcome that immensity leaves me paralyzed. Granted, when you’re working on a team with the likes of Finkel, Kai, Sam Black, etc., or with Josh Utter-Leyton, LSV, PVDDR, etc., you’re getting some of the best possible help – but not everyone gets that kind of help.

There are plenty of articles out there about how to playtest. About how to make sure you’re using the small amount of time (in the grand scheme) you have available to make your testing worthwhile, and to avoid certain traps that are easy to fall into. But what of the most simple and common trap – just not knowing what you’re doing? It’s a difficult problem to overcome, because it’s so obvious when your results come in, but it isn’t easy to see from the inside out. The fear of missing some key lynchpin of a format, predicting a metagame incorrectly, and being WAY off in your assessment of a deck is just the worst possible outcome, and I’d be downright dazed by the prospect. Part of this fear is probably driven by the fact that this exact thing did happen when I was testing for PT AVR, but I wasn’t testing with a team of proven PT veterans, and I have to assume that had a lot to do with why such an obvious mistake was made. I’d hope that if I had more experience with this type of analysis and seeing results from it (perhaps with the hindsight of my PT results ahead of time, for example), I could avoid this most obvious trap. We do tend to learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

When I look at the deck that Team Channel Fireball played in the PT, I have less certainty that a team environment shakes this out. Certainly, they had a fine deck, and their results were fine. However, I wonder how much of those results are predicated by Limited play combined with just being really frigging good at Magic, and how much better they would have done had they accurately predicted the metagame. All of the reports I read of their testing showed they expected to play a high percentage of their constructed matches against Esper and other Revelation decks, and not very many green decks. While Esper did end up being one of the most played archetypes (I don’t recall if it was actually #1), overall the deck didn’t perform very well, so when it came to brass tacks they prepared for a day 1 metagame that left them underprepared for their own success. This isn’t the first time I’d seen this happen, as they missed the mark at PT AVR, as well, predicting (similarly to my own mistaken read) that the format would revolve around Boros, and played a GW deck that beat Boros, but didn’t beat the actual metagame of Naya and Jund.

Note that these appear to be outliers in the curve, for the most part Team CF has put up excellent results at literally every event I’ve ever followed them in. More often than not the decks they play end up defining the metagame for the season, or are great versions of good decks for a specific tournament.

Still, it makes me wonder about how likely I’d be to miss the mark. And because my number of shots is so few compared to the number a Platinum or HoF pro gets to take, each of mine has to be more precise, because I don’t necessarily get to reload.

To make an already long story shorter, I truly wonder if – had I been qualified for PT Theros – I would have been capable of identifying the best deck. I did come fairly close to some of the mono-black devotion decks when I was dissecting Mono-Black a few weeks back, which gives me some hope, but I honestly don’t have the data to know for sure.

What I do know, now that the results are in and the cream has risen to the top, is what I think I’ll enjoy playing with for the next few weeks or months of Standard. As soon as I saw what was going on with the Mono-U decks, I knew where I wanted to be. Like many others, I started smashing with the deck on MtGO as soon as I could, and quickly found the deck to be all sorts of fun.

I won’t regale you with endless discussion of how I built my initial list, because I unabashedly stole the list from the Top 8 of the PT. I began with an amalgamation of the Team SCG and Team Revolution decks, picking sideboard and maindeck choices as I deemed appropriate, and in fact trying a lot of different options to determine which ones I actually liked.

I determined rather quickly that I didn’t like the Walls, the [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card]s, or the [card]Pithing Needle[/card]s, but I liked the [card]Aetherling[/card]s and [card]Rapid Hybridization[/card]s, along with the [card]Gainsay[/card]s and [card]Negate[/card]s. As I continued to play, some very apparent trends began to appear.

The format has already advanced to adapt to the results of the PT. We’re less than a week out from that event, and I can already see the metagaming happening, and have begun to lose matches to decks that should be good matchups, because they have evolved beyond the lists from the PT, as a reaction to the success of the Mono-U deck (both in the PT and online). As such, it seems irresponsible to try and convince you the deck is great in the configuration it was a week ago, when the rest of the decks have adapted. Understanding those adaptations, and iterating yourself away from the existing deck into another direction is one of the many ways you can respond, and is the response I’ve chosen to pursue.

It isn’t difficult to recognize how the format is going to adapt to the Mono-U threat – [card]Mistcutter Hydra[/card] and [card]Skylasher[/card]. They’re the most obvious solution to a deck that has only blue cards, as the only protection from blue creatures in the format. From the Blue devotion perspective, cards like [card]Polukranos, World Eater[/card] and [card]Arbor Colossus[/card] were also incredibly difficult to deal with from the green decks, unless you had a [card]Tidebinder Mage[/card]. Even then it had to survive [card]Domri Rade[/card] and other red removal, or Polukranos could just off it at the end of your next turn. From the control decks (which were already a bit of a bad matchup), [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] is the single biggest problem. While they also have cards like [card]Detention Sphere[/card], which can answer even Thassa, a 1-for-1 removal spell isn’t all that much worse than any other [card]Doom Blade[/card]. From the [card]Doom Blade[/card] decks themselves, I didn’t see a lot of adaptation, but [card]Desecration Demon[/card] really began to be an issue, as a two-pronged problem that you didn’t have a real solution for on either end. It either served as a total brick wall that required a [card thassa, god of the sea]Thassa[/card] to punch through; or an early threat that isn’t always easy to stay ahead of when you’re trying to hit 5 devotion through removal.
As an effort to adapt to these adaptations, I decided to try a black splash, similar to the decision Joel Larsson made before Dublin.

[deck]10 Island
4 Watery Grave
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Mutavault
1 Dimir Guildgate
4 Galerider Sliver
4 Master of Waves
4 Judge’s Familiar
4 Frostburn Weird
4 Cloudfin Raptor
3 Thassa, God of the Sea
3 Tidebinder Mage
3 Thoughtseize
3 Syncopate
2 Doom Blade
3 Bident of Thassa
1 Thoughtseize
2 Doom Blade
2 Duress
1 Jace, Memory Adept
2 Negate
2 Pithing Needle
3 Sensory Deprivation
1 Ultimate Price
1 Unknown Card[/deck]

First, wasn’t even aware Joel was playing Ub until well after the event. Had I been aware, it would likely have tainted my perception on what the deck should look like and my own list would likely have diverged quite a bit from what it is today.

My own thought process is informed by answering the answers:

-Both [card]Mistcutter Hydra[/card] and [card]Skylasher[/card] are incapable of being answered by a mono-blue deck. While you can occasionally surprise one or either with a Rapidly Hybridized creature blocking it, it requires many things to go right, and is still at best a trade, and more likely a 2-for-1 on yourself.

-Both [card]Mistcutter Hydra[/card] and [card]Skylasher[/card] die to [card]Doom Blade[/card].

-Both [card polukranos, world eater]Polukranos[/card] and [card]Arbor Colossus[/card] die to [card]Doom Blade[/card].
[card]Thoughtseize[/card] is really good.

These determinations allowed me to investigate splashing a color in the deck, to determine how far the manabase was capable of being stretched before it broke. I began with a simple manabase, based on Sam Black’s from PT Theros:

1 [card]Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx[/card]
2 [card]Mutavault[/card]
4 [card]Watery Grave[/card]
4 [card]Temple of Deceit[/card]
14 [card]Island[/card]

I’ve since seen a few manabases of other similar shells, but they’ve chosen to include a few different options:

1 [card]Swamp[/card] – in the early turns, this is effectively a colorless land that doesn’t generate blue mana ([card]Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx[/card]) or attack for two ([card]Mutavault[/card]). While I want to play enough black sources to cast my black spells, I don’t want to increase the number of lands that can’t cast the blue ones.

1+ [card]Dimir Guildgate[/card] – while this solves the issue of casting blue or black spells, I don’t like the additional EtB-tapped land. One of the admirable qualities of the mono-U deck is that you play a land, and then it just does what it’s supposed to – it taps for mana. Despite the fact that the deck runs 23-25 lands, including 20 or more basic Islands, you still occasionally have difficulty casting your spells on-curve, as you’re really hurt by any single Mutavault or Nykthos interrupting your land drops. You can’t curve [card cloudfin raptor]Raptor[/card]-[card frostburn weird]Frostburn[/card]-[card nightveil specter]Nightveil[/card] with a [card]Mutavault[/card] in the mix, and that’s really what you want to be doing as much as possible. Adding EtB-tapped lands into that equation makes the mana even more unreliable, and you find yourself planning how to go off-curve to capitalize on hitting curve later – for example, making a 1-drop on turn 2 to play a Temple, so you can hit your 3-drop on turn 3. Or playing a Thassa and a Temple on turn 4, rather than a [card]Master of Waves[/card]. These are concessions you have to make, but they don’t always feel good. Pushing that even further by adding in Guildgates seems incredibly ambitious, and I can see why Larsson had to exclude [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] from his list to accommodate. That isn’t a tradeoff I’m willing to make, since Specter is SO good in so many matchups, so I’d rather eschew the Guildgates.

0 [card]Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx[/card] – I’m not entirely opposed to this in general for many of the reasons I outlined above, but I feel like the opportunity cost of having one in the deck is worth the risk for the potential payoff, even when you don’t have a particularly high curve. Beyond playing a bunch of spells all at once, the most common uses I’ve had with Nykthos are: Playing my opponent’s spells I’ve stolen with [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] (when you have [card]Judge’s Familiar[/card] or [card]Frostburn Weird[/card], or of course the Specter), hitting seven mana to overload [card]Cyclonic Rift[/card], or just powering out a bunch of mana to make your team unblockable with Thassa. It’s also worth noting that in the mirror, when one player has a Nykthos and the other does not, the game is very difficult for the player without it to win. The mana advantage is simply too great to overcome, when you’re forced to play around 1 spell per turn, and the opponent can just drop their whole hand.

2-4 [card]Mutavault[/card] – Sam Black said on Twitter that during testing for PT Theros, Kai Budde made the statement “If you’re going to play less than 4 [card]Mutavault[/card], play a different deck.” I can appreciate that, especially in the mono-colored list, but it’s not exactly that simple when you’re playing with a splash. As I said above, I think there’s a tension between the number of colorless lands you can play and the number of EtB-Tapped lands you can afford to play. When you move too far beyond 7-8 lands that don’t produce blue mana on turn 1, it starts to become unreliable for you to support all the hybrid cards, and you begin to fall behind on your curve. I think Sam and Kai are 100% correct in a shell that’s running 20+ Islands, but in this case, I think you can really only max out at three. I’m currently running 2, but I can see a case being made for a third.

Moving beyond the manabase, I wanted to gain the benefits of running black cards, but I wanted to maintain the consistency of the mono-blue strategy in game one, so I put the black cards in the sideboard, and kept the maindeck mono-blue. We haven’t gotten to the point where players are putting [card]Mistcutter Hydra[/card] into the maindeck, so we don’t necessarily need to go so far as to pre-board against those cards, and keeping your plan consistent for the first game of a match across the board is preferable to having a bunch of dead cards against control and mono-B devotion. Here’s where my list is today:

[deck]4 Cloudfin Raptor
4 Judge’s Familiar
4 Frostburn Weird
4 Tidebinder Mage
1 Omenspeaker
4 Nightveil Specter
4 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Master of Waves
2 Cyclonic Rift
2 Bident of Thassa
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
2 Mutavault
4 Watery Grave
4 Temple of Deceit
14 Island
3 Thoughtseize
3 Doom Blade
2 Ultimate Price
1 Rapid Hybridization
2 Aetherling
2 Negate
2 Gainsay[/deck]

As I said, the maindeck is fairly stock, with the major differences lying in the mana, specifically to capitalize on the black spells in the board. There’s a bit of an overload when it comes to removal, but it makes sense when you consider the most typical sideboarding strategy of:

-4 [card]Judge’s Familiar[/card]
-2 [card jace, architect of thought]Jace[/card]/[card bident of thassa]Bident[/card] (depending on whether it’s big green guys or little red guys)
+6 Removal spells

On the other side of the fence, you get to make these changes against control:

-4 [card]Tidebinder Mage[/card]
-1 [card]Omenspeaker[/card]
-2 [card jace, architect of thought]Jace[/card]
-1 [card]Cloudfin Raptor[/card]
-1 [card]Frostburn Weird[/card]
+3 [card]Thoughtseize[/card]
+2 [card]Negate[/card]
+2 [card]Gainsay[/card]
+2[card] Aetherling[/card]

I’m not married to this plan. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice you have to make in terms of likelihood of having five devotion, but reducing the amount of early creatures you’re playing while bringing in more reactive spells is a concession I think is necessary against control. You’re less likely to have a board full of threats because of cards like [card]Detention Sphere[/card] and [card]Supreme Verdict[/card], so it becomes more important to have the best threats, rather than any threats. I think [card]Jace, Architect of Thought[/card] is still very good against control, but it has much less utility when the opponent isn’t attacking. I’d like to have it so we could -2, but in the same slots I’d much rather be able to stop them from having a Jace, or play an [card]Aetherling[/card]. [card]Bident of Thassa[/card] is still very strong, as having it on board with even one or two creatures means a steady stream of card draw, which allows you to keep up with their removal. I could see hedging by removing 1 of Bident and Jace each, but I have to get a better feel for those dynamics. Your single best card is obviously Thassa, which makes it possible to get the best card quality over the course of a long game.

The single greatest issue I’ve been having with this deck is [card]Desecration Demon[/card]. Adding in the black removal has shored up a lot of issues with the green cards, I’ve had a lot of success by watching my opponents put all their eggs in one Hydra, and then just popping it for two mana. Or sinking a whole turn into [card]Polukranos, World Eater[/card], where the same result happens. However, Demon is a little different. Because it’s so cheap to play, and so devastatingly difficult to race, effectively brick-walling me the turn they cast it, I’m left with only three cards in the deck that deal with it effectively, and another pair that delay. When I do manage to have [card]Ultimate Price[/card] in hand, obviously it’s great – or when I’m ahead on board and can use [card]Master of Waves[/card] to neutralize it as a threat – but those times seem to be few and far between. I don’t want to hedge to much further in the split of [card]Doom Blade[/card] to [card]Ultimate Price[/card], because there are just far too many hybrid and gold creatures being played right now to justify [card]Ultimate Price[/card] as more than a 2-of, but I need to do some more considering of how best to approach that guy. For a while I was running [card]Claustrophobia[/card] in the board, and that has some potential to return to the shortlist if the black decks keep being an issue. It has the added bonus of locking down a [card]Blood Baron of Vizkopa[/card], though it’s particularly bad against [card]Obzedat, Ghost Council[/card]. Most things are, though.

I think this deck is very well positioned right now. It has many strong matchups across the board, it solves a lot of the questions other decks are asking, while having trumps for their solutions, as well. It gets to capitalize on the strongest creatures in the format, and has a solid sideboard plan against most of the decks that are natural predators of the Fish plan. Overall, if it can survive any issues with the manabase collapsing on itself, it should be a good direction to head with the deck in a post-PT metagame.

Let me know what you think, especially if you have any insight into how to solve the [card]Desecration Demon[/card] problem, or if that’s just one of the cards you’ll have to eat it to for the time being. Good luck at Game Day!


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