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Silvestri Says – Swans over Barcelona

This comes as old news to many of you, but in case you’ve been out of reach for the past few days, Cascade Swans won Grand Prix Barcelona and had 3 total copies in the Top Eight. Oh, and its Day Two qualifying % made a mockery of just about every other deck in the field. So how worried should those attending GP Seattle or their local PTQ’s this weekend really be? Well that’s hopefully something I can make clearer for you. On we go!

First off, there were a number of posts that sprouted up immediately following the conclusion of Barcelona wondering if this deck was a one-time metagame shot, that once people understood the deck and boarded some sort of hate, any sort of real “targeted’ cards against Swans, it would fold. This is a misconception that tends to spring up after literally every combo deck first appears in pretty much every format. Let me be clear here; an intelligent targeted approach can badly hurt some decks and definitely shift the percentages in the “fair’ deck’s corner. However, nearly no successful combo deck over the past couple of years in any format has simply rolled over and died to one hate card.

Let me repeat that for those not listening: Meddling Mage naming Seismic Assault doesn’t automatically beat the deck. Runed Halo naming Assault doesn’t mean the Swans player is suddenly incapable of killing you. Thought Hemorrhage does not destroy the deck.

Look at the deck closely here:

Joel Calafell – Cascade Swans

No single hate card is going to beat this deck in post-board games; heck it even features a semi-transformative sideboard! It seems like the Dredge fallacy all over again, if I board in graveyard hate, clearly I have a favorable match against Dredge! What makes this opinion even more disturbing is that Cascade Swans has a clear back-up plan! Many people can’t fathom the idea of losing only to Countryside Crusher, Bloodbraid Elf and some manland beats. There simply is no way a well tuned control deck could lose to such a primitive and ultimately irrelevant plan B.

Well yeah, it can. Read the game two where Calafell grinds Neri down, forcing him to deal with his combo pieces while getting in for damage with these so-called irrelevant threats. In the end Calafell managed enough pressure to triumph over two active [card]Obelisk of Alara[/card], something I doubt many aggro decks could boast about.

“Oh, but Neri didn’t have any real game plan against Swans! Our versions will be far superior in the match!’

Post-board Neri had 3 Meddling Mage, 2 Pithing Needle and a Thought Hemorrhage to go along with 11 counters and Vendilion Clique.

Here’s a big problem with most of these players analysis, they bring two faulty assumptions to the table when discussing the Swans match. First is that a resolved hate card turns the deck into a cripple with irrelevant remaining threats, not only is this mistaken*, but Maelstrom Pulse, Aura of Silence, Primal Command and Deny Reality answer the vast majority of the hate. In addition, people often overlook the fact that Swans has greater odds of finding one of these answer cards through cascade. The second is that they assume bringing in a notable hate package won’t disrupt the core game-plan of their own deck. If you decide to bring in 8 cards to disrupt Swans with and keep removal in, then most likely you’ll be left removing pump, burn or threats from the deck to make room. This in turn increases the chances of your deck getting weaker opening hands and putting less pressure on Swans than one would normally expect against a deck that does very little over its first three turns.

*I really fail to see how Countryside Crusher isn’t a big threat. It can quickly become a 7/7 over the course of a turn and even bigger after that, while fueling the Swans player with more cascade spells. Treetop Village also constantly comes up as a constant annoyance to control players, but somehow because it’s not in an all-green deck it becomes less of an issue?

Ben Kowal, once upon a time, talked to me about hate cards and why many of them had no place near the maindeck of most control decks. In fact, outside of a few niche cases, the logic could be applied to nearly any deck when referencing a single set of cards being a “plan’ for post-board games. What you end up saying when referring to one card as a win is that you hope the following chain of events happens:

1) Draw the hate card in your opener or first few turns.
Remember, it’s roughly 40% to see the card in your opener. For Meddling Mage, you need to hit it very early or all of the Mages in your deck lose a ton of value. Cards like Pithing Needle and Runed Halo can wait until turn 3, but that still only gives you one more precious turn to find it.

2) Sack the hate card in to play.
Let’s say you do have a hate card and you see it early. If it’s a splash color, you have to be able to easily access it and cast the hate card in a timely interval or it doesn’t really matter.

3) Have your opponent draw nothing relevant to answer or trump the hate card.
You know why Runed Halo is a joke answer against Swans combo? If you can’t back it up with a serious threat to end the game immediately, Swans can still combo off in essence by drawing the deck and wiping out the board with Assault while setting up a god hand. At which point you play your pathetic spells, Swans untaps, casts Primal Command to bounce the Halo back and shuffle all those lands back into their library and kills you. Post-board against counters, feel free to change this play into Vexing ShusherMaelstrom Pulse, kill you.

Hate cards are simply not an answer to this type of strategy without a true plan in place; like 5c has where it dedicates a huge number of cards to keeping control or Faeries where it doesn’t need to shut you down for more than a few turns, just long enough to get lethal out. Normal aggro can’t really do this, because it needs all the hate cards just to stay in the game for a little while and not get goldfished, the irony being what I talked about above. Often in this quest to slow Swans down, players slow themselves down just as much!

All of this is also ignoring the strategy of winning with creature beats, which PV and other Swans players did throughout the day and you can read in the coverage about.

4) Your opponent actually gets crippled by it.
One of my favorite examples is MUC mulliganing down to 5-6 constantly looking for Hurkyll’s Recall to blow out the Affinity opponent. The problem was the hate card itself provided the false sense of illusion that the automatic blowout that happened when it was cast actually ended the game. In actuality, the card loss and mana issues caused by the mulligans usually gave Affinity a window to end the game either via Shrapnel Blast, or by simply replaying an Arcbound Ravager or Atog and trying for one last alpha strike before MUC could take total control.

Overhating

Another good example is from the older Extended seasons with Dredge. I was playing with G/W/B Doran against a Dredge deck in the T8 of a PE. In this particular game I managed a Leyline of the Void on turn 0 and Yixlid Jailer on turn 2. I pretty much can’t lose, right? I proceeded to miss my next few land drops and got beat to death by several hard-cast Narcomoeba and Stinkweed Imp. I had mulliganed to find my hate and kept my 6-carder which was simply 4 lands and the 2 hate cards. Even when I drew into Doran on turn 3, proving that I’m lucky, my opponent simply used his supposedly worthless Imp to keep him at bay.

Remember, the key is to have a deck that can accomplish the goal of winning the game before the opponent. In some cases this can mean relying on a select batch of cards to help carry the day, but often overlooked, it means adapting the deck itself to the match-up versus basically playing a mini-deck built from your sideboard inside the now useless shell of your maindeck. Instead of trying to fight Swans using awkward answer cards like Runed Halo in BW tokens, why not try for an approach that helps your aggressive portion out? Like the Rain of Tears or Fulminator Mage plan LSV and GerryT was using against control, but in reverse. Remember that Swans can’t combo you to death if you keep them below 4 mana and half their lands comes into play tapped, so getting a real Time Walk or two in the deal is pretty amazing for aggro.

G/B Elves did pretty well against Swans and it did so through a combination of a quick clock, backed by various disruption and removal that don’t suck against the field. Maelstrom Pulse and Thoughtseize both have plenty of other uses and really only Pithing Needle is amazing against Swans and meh elsewhere. The Swans deck also can’t transform very effectively, because creatures like Vanquisher and [card]Chameleon Colossus[/card] just don’t care how big the opposing guys are and nor does Eyeblight’s Ending or Shriekmaw.

I know I railed on these narrow hate cards a lot, but I certainly think there are proper places for them. Meddling Mage in Bant or that 5c Bloodbraid deck seems like a great usage of him as hate, they can really make use of the 2/2 body while disrupting the opponent. For a slow 5cc deck like Neri ran, Runed Halo makes a lot more sense, because you can protect it and make sure they don’t draw their deck for free, while additional copies shut down Crusher and Treetop Village. If any deck is going to use Pithing Needle effectively, I’d expect it to be red decks that aren’t balls to the wall aggro. Those ones only run Squire’s as one-drops, so exchanging that play for a Pithing Needle doesn’t really change the overall clock or the red deck. It saw play in the GB elves deck and it can surely buy a few turns there, especially when combined with Thoughtseize.

Now for you potential Swans players, let me say this. Even though the deck was a known quantity before Barcelona, it didn’t have a big bull’s eye on its back. Now it does. The best example could be from earlier this year with GP: LA and TEPS taking it down. People knew the deck existed, but ignored it. Then after it won, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting somebody with Stifle in his main or sideboard. A lot of people are going to likely try and overcompensate against this devastating combo deck, which means you’ll be in for some rough post-board games. You’ve got a couple of things going for you though. First is that you win the majority of game one’s in this format and it isn’t particularly close. We’re talking Dredge game one level of domination, where you show up and usually walk all over the opponent. Second, there’s no guarantee that people will board effective kinds of hate against you.

Personally I would expect to run into Pithing Needle and Runed Halo in BW Tokens’ guy more often than the guy running LD (assuming it was good enough to do so ^^) or Thoughtseize, Rule of Law and Aura of Silence teched-out guy. Since you know, usually the card they cascade for is the really good one and the cascade card itself is an overcosted effect / dude. Or that Aura of Silence slows down and blows up Seismic Assault amazingly well.

Finally the fact remains that Swans is a really easy deck to play. Combined with its power level, this makes Swans a very attractive option to people who need to grind out the full set of rounds day one. It also means you can spend a lot more time focusing purely on how to play the control matches and how to sideboard properly with the deck, since the aggro matches almost play themselves once you understand how the deck works.

Personally I’m very impressed by Swans’s performance, especially considering it was known before the Grand Prix. I don’t know if it’s the best deck in the metagame considering the backlash it’ll inevitably face, but it definitely ranks in the top three and has the highest power level of any deck in Standard. Personally I’ve narrowed my options for GP: Seattle to B/W not tokens, Cascade Swans and B/R, I also think 5c and 5c Bloodbraid aggro are quite solid, but I simply don’t trust the mana / my mulligan skills enough to play it over so many rounds of competition.

See you at Grand Prix Seattle!

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: joshsilvestriATchannelfireballDOTcom

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