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Rogue Report: Cactus Control

Brrrrrr,

Montana gets really cold in the winter. Being in Seattle the last couple of years I’ve gotten used to the piercing cold winter that the humidity offers. The Seattle cold is gripping. It follows you inside and won’t let go until you put on socks and burrito yourself in a comforter.

The Montana cold is different. The chill outside is biting and unbearable. You’re shivering the moment it touches your skin – skin that you’re convinced is purple and frozen if you even just look outside – but that’s where it stays. (At least, it usually stays outside. There was the time my mom found a snowdrift in our dryer that snuck in through the vent. I half expected to open a rarely-used closet and find a foot of snow and a lamppost.) Luckily, once you enter your nice, warm house, you get a satisfying thawing feeling in your ears. Grab a hot chocolate, curl up by the fire, and you’re good to go.

This is where I found myself for Christmas break, back home in Montana. Leaving the warmth of the house sounded like a terrible idea, so I had to come up with something to do while snowed in. Armed with nearly unlimited hot chocolate and plenty of meat and cheese sandwiches, I decided to tackle Extended.

The Testing Process

Enter: Zaiem Beg, my hero. Through the power of Magic Workstation we set out to conquer a format. It didn’t matter to us that we didn’t understand the format yet; that would come with time. First, let’s build some decks!

During one of our early strategy discussions, Zaiem suggested Martyr of Sands. Everything seemed to fit, the format looked right for a lifegain strategy to succeed. From that moment forward, Zaiem and I devoted our time to making the deck work. We tested nearly every matchup, worked relentlessly on the sideboard, and tuned the deck constantly. The eventual result was a PTQ Top 8 and a Grand Prix Day 2. Hardly format defining, but the process taught me a lot about the Extended format as well as how to tweak a deck to match the metagame. I’m going to take you from beginning to end, show you how the deck started, and how and why we came to the conclusions that we did. This is an insight into my world, a world where any card is possibility, and any matchup solvable. (Unless it isn’t.)

First, I’ll let my (mostly) uncut e-mail do all the talking, Zack Hill style. I typed up the list and recruited the help of Gavin Verhey and Daniel Hanson through e-mail. Gavin was good for guidance and providing ideas, and Dan provided the constant criticism to really test our faith. (Most of his responses were just the word “terrible.”) Here’s that first, fateful e-mail:

,

Tuesday, December 16, 2008, 12:45am
A new extended deck: need help!
To: Zaiem, Dan, Gavin, From: Jon

Ok, so Zaiem and I have been testing on MWS the last two days, getting ready for the upcoming PTQs. I think we may have randomly stumbled onto something. I kind of wanted to keep this a secret, but then I thought who the hell am I we need help, and I like you guys. Ok, here is the decklist, then I’ll go over the list, then I’ll go over the relevant matchups and what we know so far. (It’s like an article for free!)

Cactus Control

So, it’s a Martyr deck. The best thing this deck has going for it is Ranger of Eos. Seriously, that guy makes this deck sick. You’re playing against Zoo, you do something to them on turn 2 usually involving a Martyr or a Kami, then you go grab two more with Ranger? AAAnd, he’s a 3/2 on the board. Great. Reveillark has been really good too, and most of the time it’s because he can be a threat. He also acts like a Ranger of Eos later in the game, or a mini-Proclamation.

Ok ok ok ok Safewright Quest I kno rite??? Seriously, it’s been good. With the Quest and Eternal Dragon it’s like you’re playing lands that are white. Against a lot of decks you’ll pop off a Martyr on turn two with no more lands in your hand, then pop your Quests and Dragons next turn. They’ve been great.

So Kami of False Hope has been really good. Elves that are not LSV’s version [because of Grapeshot] can’t beat it. They can’t beat it + Proclamation, and in the early game even if they go off you can play more, Eos, play more, buy time, or just Wrath. It’s also really key against All in Red, Zoo, (assuming Affinity), really anything that plans to win by attacking. That being said, I’m not sure why I only have three main. I think we should find room for the 4th.
Crovax has been good because of what he does to Elves, and he also pumps you team. He hasn’t been extremely relevant, but I like being able to shut some things down, and he’s decent against Faeries.

Ranger of Eos was the first push, Safewright quest was the innovation, but Phyrexian Arena is the gas, and we play black almost exclusively for this 1BB spell. We really wanted a Howling Mine type thing, but there is no way Howling Mine is going to work. They untap, Explosives it or something, or whatever; there’s a million ways to kill artifacts. Nobody kills enchantments, so this thing is great. When you’re drawing two cards a turn you can do so much, and your Martyr will always be for huge amounts. Turn three Arena turn four martyr is just nuts.

Engineered Explosives is just good in this format, but after seeing matchups like Zoo and Elves, I’m really tempted to make it something else, something white. We just added Hide// Seek to the deck, but it’s not extremely tested. The deck can’t Proc-Kami if your opponent has an active Jitte, and that card makes playing the game a lot more awkward. So for now these are our answer cards, but maybe they need to be something else. Taking a card out of their library sounds relevant in some matchups, like taking Grapeshot out of Elves, or Mindslaver out of Tron, or anything out of Gifts. Chalice for 1 could probably hurt a bit, but it doesn’t stop Proc.

The mana has been really good; hitting 1BB isn’t that hard. Safewright Quest, Eternal Dragon, and sac lands all get Godless Shrines, so you’re fine. The red mana off Sacred Foundry is practically free, and I added it originally for Engineered Explosives, but now it hits Hide//Seek. The only thing that can possibly be a problem is missing land drops, as I’ve gotten stuck on 3 and a Temple of the False God before, and it’s painful. Still, with 30 mana sources in the deck, I feel fine. Maybe all the deck-thinning is coming back to bite me? I don’t want to add another land. (I don’t wanna!) The Temple of the False God has been great (when it doesn’t screw you) because it gets you to Proclamation faster, and turn five Ranger of Eos + Martyr of Sands activate is pretty good. Still, Zaiem and I aren’t as good at mana bases as, say, Dan Hanson, so…

[I spent the next 700 words going over the relevant matchups at the time. It didn’t seem very relevant, so I cut it.]

I’ve typed a lot. Anyway, what do you guys think?

Jon

Changing Cactus Control

So there it is, our first e-mail. It’s funny looking back on it now, like reading something you wrote in seventh grade. I feel like the deck changed so much, but a lot of it stayed the same.

One of my favorite ways to design a deck is to go extreme. You come up with an idea, you build a deck that maximizes that idea, and you don’t sacrifice. You want to build the Quillspike deck? Maximize it. Kitchen Finks, Glen-Elendra Archmage, Leech Bonder, Devoted Druid. While we are persisting, let’s run Nantuko Husk and River Kelpie. Throw the deck against a few things in the field and see what sticks.

This approach lets you see what’s worth pursuing. You know you won’t win every game, but pay attention to what’s working. I once made a deck revolving around the two Greater Gargadon combos: Reveillark + Body Double and Murderous Redcap + Juniper Order Ranger. I just smashed them all into the same deck, added Nantuko Husk as another way to sacrifice, and figured a game win would come out of it somewhere. You know what I learned? Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool actually work. This was before Manuel Bucher made it cool, so I wasn’t sure I could get all my colors to function. I had heard people talk about the combo of Reflecting Pool and Vivid lands, so why not try it out? The combos in the deck weren’t great, but the mana base never let me down.

Do you think All in Red would have every existed if somebody hadn’t thought “you know what would be cool? Turn one Deus of Calamity. Let’s run every ritual we can find, two game-winning five drops, and see what happens.” Sometimes those crazy ideas just work.

That’s how I first approached this deck: head first. We’re going to make a Martyr of Sands and Proclamation of Rebirth deck. Kami of False hope is kind of like Martyr. Get in the deck! Ranger of Eos gets both of those cards. In the deck! Reveillark gets both of those cards back. In the deck! You know what is good with Martyr of Sands? White cards. If Illuminated Folio taught me anything, it was that Safewright Quest was a colored land. In the deck! Eternal Dragon was like a bad Safewright Quest, so why not run him too? In the deck! What’s better than turn seven Proclamation? Turn six! Temple of the False God, in the deck!

While testing the earliest version, which was mono-white at the time, Zaiem and I really felt like we needed gas. The deck could stall the early turns, but then you just ran out of cards so fast. Proc+Martyr isn’t so impressive when you’re only gaining six life a turn. The only thing I could think of was Illuminated Folio, and I kept complaining about how I just wanted Phyrexian Arena. This is probably where Zaiem said “just run Phyrexian Arena then.” Fine, you got me. Eight sac lands later and I was paying 1BB on turn three and loving it.

After we saw that the core was working, that sacrificing a Martyr on turn two for twelve life really could win the game, we started metagaming. Zaiem suggested Hide//Seek early, and I could kiss him on the mouth for it. He also suggested Engineered Explosives, but pushed it out of the deck as fast as I could and forgave him for it later.

The more we tested the deck the more the good ideas would rise to the surface. Safewright Quest was cute and could often be useful, but it was never game-altering. More often than gain you an important three life it would slow your Ranger of Eos down a turn and you would lose because of it. Once we fully embraced Phyrexian Arena then the need for white lands disappeared, the Arena usually gave you enough white cards. Eternal Dragon switched roles from a white land to a one-of win condition for the late game.

Speaking of Phyrexian Arena, it took me a really long time to accept that I needed four maindeck. I kept trying to cut it down to three or two copies. Then I would start to lose games to Zoo that I should have had locked down but my Proclamations weren’t big enough to fight a Tarmogoyf. I eventually tried Night’s Whisper as more pseudo-copies of Arena, but they never quite fit. They were usually decent, but for some reason I could never make them work. Looking back I probably should have tried harder.

Now that Phyrexian Arena was fully embraced the deck was having problems with slow hands. You see three lands, Reveillark, Proclamation of Rebirth, Phyrexian Arena, and a Ranger of Eos – that’s probably not going to work – and hands like that were happening all the time. At the same time, Engineered Explosives was very unimpressive. First of all, it wasn’t white, and the more I played the deck the more important I realized white cards were. The other problem was that Engineered Explosives was a very expensive and pretty awkward Vindicate most of the time.

Lightning Helix was a good addition to the deck. It sped the deck up a lot, giving you a play before your Phyrexian Arena. Usually you beat Zoo if you used a Lightning Helix or a Martyr of Sands in the first two turns and then played an Arena. Helix also gave the deck a way to interact with Wizards at instant speed, letting you kill a Venser or a Vendilion Clique in response to a Riptide Laboratory activation.

Hide//Seek was a hard one for me to embrace four copies of. It looked like such a sideboard card to me, but it really did do everything. There were some matchups where both sides could be useful, but a lot of matchups pivoted so much on your ability to Hide a Jitte or Seek out their Conflagrate. Once Zaiem convinced me that it had a job in every matchup, four Hide//Seek never left the maindeck.

The creature base settled pretty quickly, with a few one-ofs that shifted from time to time. Reveillark wasn’t wining us any games we wouldn’t already win, so it came out. A single copy of Eternal Dragon was in and out of the deck all the time. At first it was an extra mana source I thought we needed. Then it was an extra win condition we needed. Then it was an extra Plains for the All in Red matchup. Then it was the last black source we needed. In practice it rarely won a game for me, and it was usually a worse mana source than a land.

Zaiem kept complaining (and complaining and complaining) that he couldn’t win games fast enough. What, Mistveil Plains wasn’t fast enough for you? We had talked about Figure of Destiny, but never really tried it. Using your second Ranger of Eos to grab a Figure of Destiny really helped the aggro matchups, where you just need to get out of their range, then kill them. They can kill the Figure a couple times, but you Proclamation it back and keep activating it. Eventually the 8/8 will stick.

In the Top 8 of the Portland PTQ, I attacked with Figure of Destiny, made him an 8/8, did 8 damage, then tried to pass the turn. The judge told me my life total was wrong,what? The judge informed me it only takes six mana to activate Figure of Destiny’s third ability, so I needed to take two mana burn. Who knew? And I thought the card was good at eight mana to activate.

Crovax, Ascendant Hero was fun in the maindeck for the while, randomly catching people with their pants down. He made your 1/1s a little more dangerous, and was hard to kill. Unfortunately for Crovax, there was a new win condition on the way, and this deck wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

Avoiding the Draw Bracket

To understand this new way to win, you have to understand the Faeries matchup. It’s amazing the foresight Zaiem had when he said, in our second e-mail, “One weakness of this plan versus Faeries is that while it’s hard to lose, it’s also hard to win. Matches could go long, and that’s a problem. Even if you’re playing quickly, actually pushing ahead 20 points of damage could be a problem.” It was actually a big problem.

Games against Faeries/Wizards usually went one of two ways. First, they could have a fast draw and you might not have the hand to deal with it. Sometimes they play Vendilion Clique on turn three, stick a Jitte, and then counter a few relevant spells. More often, though, you could land a Ranger of Eos and get a Martyr of Sands to pop off. Suddenly you have a lot of life to work with, and once you hit seven mana you can start forecasting.

Some Wizards players would scoop right then, realizing that they can’t really stop you from gaining life, so they can’t kill you. Unfortunately, smart Wizards players knew they couldn’t win two games in a row in the next 40 minutes, so they made you try to kill them. Once we kept playing these Wizards games to completion, it became very apparent that you can’t kill a Faeries player very easily. Vedalken Shackles single-handedly shut down any method of attacking, so we needed a new angle.

The idea of periodic damage was explored, but they can force a Jitte to activation, and then you’re getting nowhere. We seriously tried Sleeper Agent as a periodic damage source immune to Vedalken Shackles, and it was tutorable with Ranger of Eos. Believe it or not, Sleeper Agent didn’t get the job done. We needed a card that could beat Umezawa’s Jitte, Vedalken Shackles, Engineered Explosives (which stopped Decree of Justice), Academy Ruins to get any of those back, and Riptide Laboratory with a Venser or a Vendilion Clique.

First, we started to get our mana base to work for us. We already knew Riptide Laboratory was a problem, so adding Ghost Quarter to the deck wasn’t much of a stretch. The version of the deck I played to a top 8 in Portland had a terrible mana base, with probably five fewer black sources than it should have had. (No wonder I had to Ghost Quarter myself for a Swamp so often.) Orzhov Basilica gave the mana-hungry deck the fuel it needed. The only problem was the periodic Venser or Molten Rain, but overall they were good. Mistveil Plains was probably my favorite innovation. It was useful in so many ways that it could be an article all by itself. Mainly it stopped you from decking yourself, and the ability to get relevant cards back in your deck was surprisingly useful.

With Mistveil Plains we could now deck the Wizards player, but that was never possible in the time allowed. Maybe against an Elves player you could deck them with a Proclamation of Rebirth and an unanswerable Kami of False Hope. You can play at lightning speed because as long as you Proclamation, nothing else you do matters. Against Wizards, though, there was a dance every turn. Upkeep, lose a life and draw a card. Then forecast a Martyr back. They Shackles it. You sacrifice it, revealing X cards. You change your life total. There were sac lands to be sacked, relevant spells to be cast. They could also get all techy on you and try to deck you with a combination of Academy Ruins, Venser, and a Riptide Laboratory. Something had to be done, but what could pierce their shell?

Enter the hero: Roiling Horror. This bad boy was way beyond Vedalken Shackle’s capabilities. The lifegain on Umezawa’s Jitte was ignorable. They had a hard time using Engineered Explosives to kill it, and you could even turn that off with Ghost Quarter. Five was a hard number to Spellstutter Sprite, and because he suspended you never had to worry about Mana Leak. Venser only stopped him for a second, and you could just re-suspend him and go again. The only problem was Riptide Laboratory to block infinitely. As long as you took care of that problem with Ghost Quarter, Roiling Horror would do the rest.

Another way you forced Roiling Horror through was with a Ghost-lit Stalker. You could suspend Roiling Horror for three or four and use Ghost-lit Stalker to make sure it was lethal. Putting the Ghost-lit Stalker in the maindeck really helped our long game in control matchups, especially when we Proclamationed it back. I even stole game one from a Mind’s Desire player with a Ghost-lit Stalker, playing it early and activating it on turn five. Their hand was terrible anyway, but that’s how you have to do it sometimes.

Ajani Vengeant was added in order to give the deck a little more oomph, but never had a particular job. Actually, Ajani’s job was mass distraction. Playing Ajani and keeping their Tarmogoyf tapped means they have to now turn all their attention on the planeswalker, leaving you free to develop your board position.

Here was the list we settled on for Grand Prix: LA.

Cactus Control:

 

I really like how the sideboard turned out. Fracturing Gust was great against more than just Affinity. Rule of Law, Ethersworn Canonist, and Gilded Light were pretty much for Mind’s Desire, just spreading out threats, but they each had application for other matchups. Firespout was for Zoo, as we really wanted more Wrath of Gods in that matchup, but Firespout was better against Elves, and costing three could be helpful. Mind Shatter was the night before the PTQ when I had one slot open and wanted an awesome one-of. I still like the feel of it, but it could probably be something more metagame specific.

If I was going to play the deck again, I’m pretty sure Extirpate needs to go in the sideboard. People brought up Extirpate at the Grand Prix, assuming we were running it because it’s so good at what it does. I’m pretty sure they’re right.

The other card that I think we should run is Detritivore. We took it out because it felt slow sometimes, but I think you lose those games anyway. The deck could probably use another land somewhere, or at least move the one in the sideboard to the maindeck. I should probably mention that I sideboarded the Plains into my deck every round once I realized how much I needed it.

Unfortunately, decks with Life from the Loam and Raven’s Crime have grown in popularity, bringing more graveyard hate into the metagame. That and Mind’s Desire just won a Grand Prix. That was never a great matchup. Coupled with the fact that what used to be a good matchup in Wild Nacatl has now become hostile with Sulfuric Vortex and Molten Rain, I’m not as sold on playing Cactus Control anymore. I’ve even heard that Faeries are running more hard counters now, like Cryptic Command, so how am I ever going to resolve a Roiling Horror?

Somewhat seriously, I think the future of this deck lies in Ad Nauseum. Ad Nauseum was pretty good with Martyr of Sands, and once I saw Reliquary Tower I started thinking about all the cards I could keep in my hand for the rest of the game. All the WHITE cards I could keep in my hand. Add in Angel’s Grace and Children of Korlis, and you’ve got yourself a combo! That might be taking it a bit too far, but I think Ad Nauseum is worth a shot.

Good luck with that. I’m pretty sure I’ve moved away from Martyr of Sands shenanigans for a while. I’m not sure what I’m going to play at the next PTQ. Maybe it’s time for me to try attacking people for once.

Oh yeah, why is the deck called Cactus Control anyway? In the words of Gavin Verhey: “When has a cactus ever let you down?” [Still not getting it. –Riki]

Thanks for reading,

Jonathon Loucks
loucksj at gmail dot com

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