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Silvestri Says – Caw-Tastrophe

It’s a Caw-Tastrophe!

Well it seems the people have spoken, as my inbox since PT Paris has largely been filled with Standard requests and decklists asking for suggestions or the 400th email about G/W Quest. Maybe next week I’ll revisit Quest decks, both my own and Frank Karsten’s Mono-White version, since a fair number of people seem interested in the best “cheap” Standard decks in the format. After that a fair number of e-mails asked about Caw-Go / Caw-Blade’s position in Standard as the best deck. Long story short, the deck is the real deal and is going to be top bird for the immediate future.

Results from the SCG Open in DC are in, with just under 700 people attending, making it the most significant tournament post-Paris and what will surely be one of the largest Standard tournaments of the year. As the title implies, the results bore out Caw-Blade to be the runaway winner at first look. Nine Caw-Blade decks were in the top sixteen. Half of the top eight and the winner, Gerry Thompson, were playing Caw-Blade. Twelve of the top sixteen had Squadron Hawk in their 75. So even out of the players that weren’t playing Caw-Blade that were successful, you could have made a reasonable guess that they still had a deck with Squadron Hawk and equipment.

Ban Hawk

Personally, I think this means something is horribly wrong and it’s time to consider banning Squadron Hawk from the format. Having an Ancestral Recall is just too big of an advantage in a format dominated by Kuldotha Rebirth, Thrummingbird and Vector Asp. Squadron Hawk blocks those guys all day without breaking a sweat! The card is Blightning and Bloodbraid Elf every single time against so many decks and everything else it’s just something to be shuffled back into the deck via Jace, the Mind Sculptor and fetches. Forget Bitterblossom; Squadron Hawk is even in a better color… The one with Stoneforge Mystic. In all seriousness though, it’s rather irritating to see people immediately jump all over a deck to call it overpowered or overrated. Its one thing to go and think a deck is strong, especially if you’ve played with it before it had a breakout performance, but otherwise scale it back a notch. I ended up writing an article about MVC3 that covered some of this phenomena and it ended up getting around 500+ comments all because people can’t keep perspective when looking at new shiny things.

Moving on, when building your Standard deck you need to have a serious strategy against equipment and especially the idea of people just beating you up with Squadron Hawks and whatever else happens to be lying around. Too many people focus on killing Swords and go overboard with Nature’s Claim and Acidic Slime only to get rolled by the winged menace and a Colonnade hit. While Squadron Hawk is by no means a solitary killer (unlike fire trucks) it does a good job of beating down when unimpeded or trading off with Vampires and such. Basically any deck that plans on trying to attack UW to death really needs a better plan against Squadron Hawk, whether that means reverting to Cunning Sparkmage, using creatures that ignore the Hawk via trample or other evasion or removal like Forked Bolt and Arc Trail.

In fact spot removal is in a very good place right now despite the Squadron Hawk conundrum, simply because dealing with Stoneforge Mystic and killing creatures in response to equip abilities is a high priority. Cards like [card]Inferno Titan[/card] are also getting the most love they’ve seen in some time, much like [card]Frost Titan[/card] was at a premium when Titans in every deck was the standard, now dealing with X/1 and X/2 creatures en masse is. Aggressive Squadron Hawk decks like Boros and GW Quest are going to be turned to with the massive increase in Caw-Blade as decks with reasonable plans against the deck that aren’t easily boarded to death.

Also in the top eight were a pair of RUG decks which as usual people wrote off for no adequate reason after the Paris results. I never thought I’d be writing this about a deck that featured Lotus Cobraand Jace the Mind Sculptor together, but this deck gets written off for no real reason. It feels a lot like GW Quest in the early days where people couldn’t accept that a Quest for the Holy Relic deck could possibly be good, it was obviously that people were awful and the pilots were lucky. RUG features one of the most powerful plans in the format and with the right sideboard doesn’t get crushed by anything in particular. The aforementioned aggro decks along with Kuldotha Red can be major problems for a deck, but a mixture of Pyroclasm, Ratchet Bomb and Tumble Magnet along with Inferno Titan can curbstomp just about any swarm strategy.

Then the question becomes – How it performs against Caw-Blade? For my money RUG does a fine job against WU decks in general, especially ones with few ways to deal with a turn two Lotus Cobra. Sure, Spell Pierce is a sweet one in other matches but the majority of relevant* cards in RUG are immune to it and often many pilots tap down early for Stoneforge Mystic rendering Mana Leak ineffective. Some versions of the deck have maindeck Acidic Slime as well which takes care of the early Sword problem. Meanwhile every single version has a large annoying creature like Precursor Golem, Inferno Titan, Frost Titan or Avenger of Zendikar which is capable of winning the game on its own.

*Acidic Slime, Titans and Oracle of Mul Daya all come to mind

In fact if you look through the average Caw-Blade deck, you’ll see almost no spot removal in the entire 75. Oust was the most played spot removal card and while effective against mana accelerants and tokens, it’s significantly less useful against the beasties I’m referring to. Day of Judgment is obviously still quite powerful and takes up residence in nearly* every single Caw-Blade deck, but it’s still four mana against decks that routinely has Mana Leak bonus mana up whenever it powers out anything after turn four. Of the remainder, Condemn and Ratchet Bomb rounded out the removal suite and Condemn joined Oust as the only real spot removal around.

*Pozgay’s list lacks them for a very good reason, but we’ll get to that…

To top it off, game one features 2-3 hard counterspells at most from the Caw-Blade deck which doesn’t exactly give it the sturdiest late-game in the format. Of course this is all moot if Stoneforge Mystic resolves early and isn’t removed, as a Sword can quickly shift the game in favor of the Caw-Blade player. As with many matches, if either Sword starts hitting an opponent, odds are good that game will end in victory for the birdle.

Beating Caw-Blade

Really that could be the biggest downfall of the Caw-Blade deck as people look to trump it. In Extended, the secret is already out and being reflected in Magic Online lists, going big is a legitimate option for winning the mirror. Having a Baneslayer Angel or Sun Titan is a huge thing when the opponent lacks particularly good removal options and a huge creature trumps everything else in a fight. In essence having a Titan or BSA sidesteps the equipment fights that occasionally happen and can also make cards like Divine Offering dead weight. These creatures naturally win creature fights even with Swords involved and can end the game in a few turns.

Or you could go another direction to win a control mirror based around small creatures.

Gerry Thompson – Winner, SCG Open DC

In the winner’s deck, we see GerryT took the spot removal note even further than using maindeck Oust, Condemn, or Journey to Nowhere. Instead, presumably unsatisfied with other options, he took it a step further and packed a trio of Lightning Bolt to take care of any early creatures while surprising opponents throughout the tournament. What also sticks out is the cutback on countermagic many of the other Caw-Blade decks had, reducing it to only five counterspells and leaving no hard counters in the maindeck. On a more interesting note is the sideboard, which runs the old Boros staple of Cunning Sparkmage and Basilisk Collar which, again, I’m sure surprised many opponents expected a straightforward fight against a low removal, Wrath-based deck.

While I can’t speak for how effective the Sparkmages were, they certainly look well-positioned and speaking as a GW Quest player, the entire package looks like a nightmare. Not only does the deck have answers to Argentum Armor in the form of Divine Offering, the combo of Lightning Bolt, Cunning Sparkmage, DOJ and Hawk / Sword is far more alarming than any previous iteration I’ve seen. It looks downright miserable for aggressive decks to play against and pieces can be leveraged against Caw-Blade opponents as well.

Is this the future of the deck? Who knows? It seems to be a well metagamed deck for what the expected opposition going into DC was, but there are definite sacrifices for the mana and it doesn’t have much going on against the other large threats talked about earlier. Then again if people aren’t playing those types of threats, it doesn’t really matter how soft you might be against them. You’ll be too busy cleaning up all the small critters people did bring to the table. Speaking of said small critters, Michael Pozsgay had the other interesting take on Caw-Blade out of the ones we have lists for.

Now this is a Fish deck in all its glory, and it has been some time since one last looked the part in Standard. This features the normal package of creatures and then takes it a step further with Mirran Crusader and Student of Warfare fully shifting it into an aggressive role in many matches. Note the expanded equipment repository which had Bonehoard and Mortarpod as standouts; Mortarpod in particular can be used to break up a board stall between hawks and Mystics rather easily. Of course Mortarpod also reintroduces the classic Mogg Fanatic strategy of forcing through damage in racing situations while keeping blockers open.

Spot removal being at a premium in the mirror makes Student of Warfare a particularly interesting choice as it can quickly get out of hand and trump any opposing creature with a Sword. It isn’t magical Christmas land to imagine scenarios of a turn one Student in the mirror requiring a Day or Jace bounce around turn five. Then the subsequent denial of said four mana spell via Spell Pierce or Mana Leak while Student beats down. Really that’s the key right now, just like the extra spot removal helps GerryT’s list deal with early threats, the lack of it in other versions make Pozsgay’s Students all the more powerful.

If Caw-Blade retains its popularity and success over the next SCG Open, this is the shift I would suspect the deck to take. UW lists featuring level up* creatures like Student or Coralhelm Commander weren’t unheard of before and in this environment it can be quite possible for them to thrive. Even cards like Enclave Cryptologist look a bit more interesting in context of a UW mirror involving very little spot removal and other than Swords, big threats and grinding is the name of the game. In essence, all this deck is doing is playing its big threats at W and 1WW instead of the fives and sixes we’re accustomed to seeing.

*I now fully expect someone to post a budget version including Caravan Escort.

So for those that are lazy or plan on rocking Caw-Blade because of its recent performances, here’s the most concise piece of advice I can give. Be ready for many mutations of the core strategy and all the opponents attempting to cure the problem. The more people that focus on stomping the equipment plan and keeping the card advantage outlets in line, the less ready they are for ‘classic UW’ aka: Baneslayers and Sun Titans. The more people focus on cutting corners, the better the chance someone will realize this and take advantage such as the case with spot removal and Student of Warfare. As long as you don’t get complacent with the deck and practice you’ll be rewarded.

Wow, over 2,000 words and we didn’t even get to other variants like the WUB version floating around on Magic Online and the possibility of a bigger red splash in the future. Topics for another time though, once more data is available or I at least get a hold of the cards necessary to test the decks. Before we leave off though, I just wanted to mention that Kuldotha Red is still a deck and that Phyrexian Revoker is in fact a legal card. Maybe some combination of the two makes the deck suck less since it hits equipment, Ratchet Bomb and various planeswalkers. Just saying…

As for a big UW deck, here’s a potential throwback to the good old days.

Normally I’d feel silly for even suggesting such a throwback, but counters don’t seem to count for much anymore and trying to trump Stoneforges and Hawks instead of playing them seems like something worth trying. Few people have answers to Baneslayer Angel or Sun Titan, and a deck like Boros is currently equipped to battle through a bunch of 1/1’s and DOJ than multiple spot removal spells and BSA. Just something to think about for a big mana control deck that doesn’t include Lotus Cobra.

Good luck to everyone at your various tournaments this weekend and hopefully I’ll see many of you at the Channelfireball 5k this weekend!

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

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