Silvestri Says – US Nationals and Azure Mage

We’ve got a lot to cover today so no introduction, let’s just jump straight into the topics of the day!

Thoughts on Nationals Results

Six Caw in the top eight sure looks terrible at first glance even if UB Control did win the tournament in the end. However is it really that big of a gap between strategies or are we looking at a case where many of the best players in the tournament simply preferred to play the deck that does everything?

Standard Top Performers: (Decks with only one loss or better in the 8 rounds of Standard)
CawBlade: 5
RUG Pod: 2 (1 Twin)
RUG Twin: 1
Vampires: 1 (The only 8-0)
UB Control: 1
Valakut: 1
Steel: 1
Bant Pod: 1

Records of the top 8 players in Standard Swiss:
Luis Scott-Vargas (7-0-1) – Caw
Ali Aintrazi (6-0-2) – UB
Noah Koessel (7-1) – Caw
Brandon Nelson: (6-1-1) – Caw
David Ochoa (6-1-1) – Caw
Hu Haibing: (6-2) – Caw
Owen Turtenwald (6-2) – Caw
James McLeod: (6-2) – Pyro

Note that with the day two field consisting of 34% Caw decks and the next largely percentage being 10% the numbers look in line with a strong deck and so do nearly all of the other archetypes. The decks mostly fall in line with their popularity percentages in terms of breakthrough with the exception of [card]Birthing Pod[/card] strategies in general, though no one build truly out-shined the others.

At this point you can look to all the people who complained about Jund being skillless or Fae having broken unbeatable starts and then contrast Caw. Caw isn’t doing anything overly powerful and doesn’t have real nut draws unless you count turn two Squadron Hawk as being something unbeatable. You now have your Jund/Fae/Mythic level deck and this time it requires a fair amount of skill and tweaking to use effectively. Is this an optimal solution to the problem that preban Caw presented? Nope. Is it better than an endless stream of Jund players cascading into [card]Blightning[/card]? I think so.

Honestly I think the worst beat to non-Caw players was the printing of [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] which is just so hard for aggro players to beat. There’s no actual answer to the kind of swing [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] brings to the table. Otherwise aggro would be a lot more popular and Caw would be forced to spread itself across the mirror, Valakut, Twin, Pod and Aggro decks. Otherwise as it stands the deck has to play a fair game against most of the field and this is most apparent when playing against a deck it isn’t explicitly prepared for like Pyromancer Ascension or some Birthing Pod decks.

UB wins!

In a way I’m glad Ali won if only to show off the power of [card]Preordain[/card]. In seriousness though, good for him to play a version of control he felt had a respectable Caw match-up and succeed with it. Oddly enough the build doesn’t look too far off from what LSV and myself were kicking around at the beginning of the format. He even kept all the sweet singletons like the surprise [card]Into the Roil[/card] and the ultimate control game threat of [card]Karn Liberated[/card]. He went all Nassif on the sideboard as well featuring another eight 1-of’s, though a few are just the second copies of cards in the maindeck.

What do people want to take away from Ali succeeding where so many others have fallen? Three things stick out to me.

1. Discard is better than ever and [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card] may be the most underplayed card in Standard. Hitting key cards in every major archetype save Valakut is good reason for people to go black in their control decks and brews in general.

2. Grinding Caw down and besting them in a long game is a legitimate option even without a recurring threat ala: [card]Vengevine[/card], [card]Bloodghast[/card] or [card]Birthing Pod[/card].

3. Ali is probably a lot better with UB than nearly everyone else who picks up the deck.

Azure Mage and Initial Impressions

And maybe a brag or two.

Out of the five top placing Caw decks and all the Caw decks I noticed something interesting. All but one of them had gone down to one Jace MD and had a second in the board and the ChannelFireball guys had a pair of [card]Azure Mage[/card] alongside them, which I talked about a few weeks ago. Since then I’ve used her with success, though I haven’t had the cards to play Caw online that much until recently and I’ve been judging* the last few local events.

*I became a level one judge a few weeks ago after much pestering from my friend and level three Eric Levine. Been having fun and learning quite a bit in the meantime. If you want to do something fun at events when you don’t necessarily want to play Magic, look into becoming a judge. I may have missed the cutoff date for the foil [card]Dark Confidant[/card] though, so if anyone wants to help out with that… =)

Go figure, turns out I can be right sometimes. It’s funny because my initial reaction to people talking about playing her in Standard was quite negative. I couldn’t truly see where a 2/1 [card]Treasure Trove[/card] fit into the metagame outside of very specific circumstances such as a match where you sit around for a while, very little happened and they couldn’t snap kill your Mage. With the advent of a more controlling Caw deck and a number of matches where you don’t necessarily want to tap out post-board, suddenly there seemed like a place for her again. I’m glad I reversed course on my initial opinion and played her and that others ran with the initial idea weeks later. The important takeaway is not to be too embarrassed about misevaluation / reevaluating something and giving it a fair shake.

To sum it up, [card]Azure Mage[/card] is a draw engine that doesn’t die to [card Squadron Hawk]Hawks[/card], isn’t forced to [card Mikokoro, Center of the Sea]Mikokoro[/card], can be done on end-step and is also another body to attack with when the field is clear. What surprises me is the move away from any draw game one and instead just focused on packing the maximum amount of power cards into the deck. It’s very interesting to see the next advancement toward control and it highlights how many evolutions Caw has gone through compared to all the others decks in the format. Speaking of evolutions here’s one that I’m sure nobody is surprised by, the attempt to restore TwinBlade as a legitimate strategy. Though I think it’s better off as GrimBlade since [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] impacts the deck just as much.

Grim Blade by feefyefofum

[deck]1 Basilisk Collar
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
2 Spellskite
4 Deceiver Exarch
2 Emeria Angel
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Squadron Hawk
1 Trinket Mage
3 Splinter Twin
2 Dispel
2 Mana Leak
3 Ponder
4 Preordain
2 Island
3 Mountain
3 Plains
4 Arid Mesa
1 Evolving Wilds
4 Glacial Fortress
1 Halimar Depths
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Seachrome Coast
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Dismember
2 Flashfreeze
2 Spell Pierce
1 Linvala, Keeper of Silence
1 Gideon Jura
3 Arc Trail
1 Day of Judgment
3 Timely Reinforcements[/deck]

I tried out a similar build and was surprised by the power of the deck simply by having both plans in it. It definitely falls under worse Caw and worse Twin deck, but that kind of plan remains strong and by having both plans it makes people sideboard very badly. This type of deck preys on people’s inexperience against the deck and the ability to go in on either plan post-board. You can become a pure control deck once you bring in more removal and [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] or you could take the other route of bring in extra [card]Spellskite[/card] and stay on Twin. Other then the sideboard problems it provides opponents the other key is that [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] and [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] are some of the best back-up plans you can have.

I’m definitely not sold on [card]Trinket Mage[/card], especially without [card]Sylvok Lifestaff[/card], which feels like the best thing you could be doing in some of your worst matches. Not having a valid six also means your late-game options basically stop at setting up the [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] combo and you’ll probably just be dead to a resolved Sphinx the way the deck is current constructed. It really wants some maindeck [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] or [card]Into the Roil[/card] to help out and really just a little more spot removal in general goes a long way. Surprisingly the mana works pretty well other than the occasional hiccup in getting a second red into play or a few too many ETBT lands. It flows relatively well for what is a first level version of the deck.

[card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] sticks out here and I mentioned how valuable he can be in many match-ups. Let’s get the obvious downsides out-of-the-way, yes he’s pretty bad against Twin and Valakut other than being another early body that can deal damage. [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] also isn’t exception in the mirror as he can’t kill anything other than [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] and [card]Jace Beleren[/card] without assistance from either a [card]Basilisk Collar[/card] or combat damage. The major advantage he brings to the deck though is reusable pinpoint removal which is what decks like [card]Tempered Steel[/card], [card]Birds of Paradise[/card] / [card]Lotus Cobra[/card] decks and Vampires absolutely hate.

What do those three strategies all have in common? All of them are quite annoying for current Caw decks to deal with. [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] doesn’t solve the matches but he makes a significant impact on them when played on turn one or two. An active [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] can easily rack up an impressive kill count unless dealt with in some fashion. Moving back to Caw and it’s difficulties there, let me remind you that Lavamancer is one of the few ways to cheaply deal with a full squadron of hawks and that when teamed with your own flying friends they can block or attack freely. Only [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] and [card]Spellskite[/card] can show up for blocking duty with an active [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] on the field and survive. It also remains a fairly good way of dealing with opposing planeswalkers or simply forcing damage through in a stalemate situation.

While I’ve tweaked the deck in multiple ways to get a feel for what’s required and what is simply preference, I’ve gotten a feel for the matches in general.

Caw Mirror: Game one is a reasonable mirror and they tend to be advantaged if they have [card]Dismember[/card] maindeck, especially the new Nationals builds with triple [card]Into the Roil[/card] and [card]Dismember[/card] which makes the combo weak and tough for any of your utility creatures to live. Post-board the normal builds can have problems while the Channelfireball build mostly just doesn’t board. I suspect many people will overboard and make themselves more vulnerable to losing a straight control fight though.

Note that your own options get a lot stronger if you include [card]Azure Mage[/card] or [card]Jace Beleren[/card] in the board since you can board out the combo and play what is essentially a Caw mirror. You are still losing out if they have a tuned deck for the mirror, but at least you have real options at your disposal.

Twin: Can be a difficult match, but you have plenty of weapons against them with [card]Spellskite[/card] and your own threat of comboing. You should also have [card]Into the Roil[/card] or [card]Dismember[/card] of your own in the 75 you play, which makes it a lot easier. [card Linvala, Keeper of Silence]Linvala[/card] is also a reasonable option, though I find her worse than just running the 3rd or 4th [card]Spellskite[/card] in this match. If they have the right board package you’ll have a worse match than normal Caw or so it feels that way.

Valakut: As reasonable as Caw’s match usually is, not amazing overall, but having the Sword + Combo plan gives you a lot more outs to their good draws. Even Exarch in general tends to be really useful at knocking them off a six for a turn or tapping [card]Primeval Titan[/card] down if it got into play. If you don’t pack the full set of [card]Flashfreeze[/card] you aren’t going to be favored post-board if they ignore your combo or just go all-in on [card]Nature’s Claim[/card] and fatties. If you can show them the combo game one, do so, because it makes many Valakut players become paranoid when boarding.

Steel: Your game one is far better even without [card]Gideon Jura[/card] and they have a miserable time boarding against the combo portion while maintaining pressure. [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card], [card]Arc Trail[/card] and a combo kill more than makes up for the loss of [card]Gideon Jura[/card] typically and once again [card]Deceiver Exarch[/card] shines as a speed bump and blocker. The only downside is if they resolve Steel you have the usual issues with goons being too big to block or burn, but that’s something all decks have to accept. Oh and [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] is more annoying with the lack of [card]Tectonic Edge[/card] in the situations where they can Steel it up.

Birthing Pod: All Pod strategies are pretty miserable if they resolve a [card]Birthing Pod[/card], but having access to [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] and [card]Arc Trail[/card] severely crimps how many broken starts they can have. An active Lavamancer actually just hoses most of the non-Twin models by taking out everything cheap that isn’t an Exarch, [card]Sea Gate Oracle[/card] or TukTuk, I don’t love playing against these types of decks but I feel more confident in my chances with the combo.

That’s all for this week, next week I hope to take a closer look at the GrimBlade list after some more testing and tweaking time. Good luck to all those attending the 75k or Open this weekend!

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: JoshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom

36 thoughts on “Silvestri Says – US Nationals and Azure Mage”

  1. “I knew Azure Mage was going to played in a control deck.” Yeah, definitely not. Anyone calling for it thought it would be in an aggro deck for an attrition win. I know that there where very few people who would play it in a control deck as it is a “bad card”.

    UB is terrible. The people that want to play it don’t know how to. It is like every other good deck. People pick it up because it is winning, but don’t understand anymore the the most straightforward plays and then don’t do well in tournaments. This is netdecking is bad.

  2. I’ve found Flashfreeze to be a strong Caw answer to Pod decks. Hard counter the Pods, let them resolve everything else and Wrath/Gideon/Dismember the creatures.

  3. Melbourne_junkie

    @Freedom – go back and (re-)read Josh’s more recent articles. I believe he ran 3 in a Caw list he took to t4 of his last PTQ (2-3 weeks ago). He called it, did well with it and team CF obv felt that it was good enough to keep running it.

  4. This makes me feel a bit better about the Top 8, actually. It seems to show that Caw Blade was really only 5 out of the 13 top decks. If anything, it seems to point to how important Limited is and also how much the Limited portion of a tournament can skewer the public perception of the most powerful builds. Thoughts?

  5. @freedom. ub is definitely NOT bad, and Luis even said in the gauntlet videos it ran surprisingly well, although he thought some of the match-ups weren’t great. It’s a good metagame choice, and it has a good match-up against caw. What’re really bad are your rampant grammatical errors and spelling.

  6. I played grim blade without the combo in last master of magicleague and i did top . I think the combo is weak in this deck cause of the kist of caw are now and the mana base. Beside you have less counters and dead cards when you are looking for the combo. I think i put the nsme to the deck cause i called it grim blade in the interview. Maybe your friend saw it 🙂 anyway good luck with testing but try it without the combo the manabase is too weak i swear you (i tried it)

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  8. xsv1nrg2 arent you pathetic trying desperately get glory for yourself…

    Anyway azure mage was nice addition to caw mirrors. Gj CFB

  9. @ross totally correct, give it up already XSV1nrg2 your comments reek of someone trying to garnish attention and saying “I called it, look at me look at me” put up or shut up, have proof (and even then no one cards any schlub can say X Y Z is a good or bad card) I will do it now. Innistrad will have good Black cards to make a deck, FIRST CALLED IT RIGHT HERE! Any black deck using Innistrad cards are my call.

  10. So I guess you have retracted your statements about RDW and how timely reinforcements isn’t that bad and the lack of results were due mainly to RDW player laziness, or whatever your words were.

    In all fairness it sounded like you hadn’t tested the matchup when you said timely reinforcements couldn’t beat the deck…but is that a good thing or not?

  11. 1 Timely reinforcements against RDW isn’t actually all that back breaking. The real problem comes when they have multiples or a firewalker to boot.

  12. @andrewhp: Ah, not surprised it came from there. The mana actually isn’t that bad, sometimes you whiff on Twin for a few turns which sucks, but getting a single red for the other cards in the deck is pretty reasonable. It’s actually a less painful splash than most colors simply because all your fetches find a Mountain.

    @Geoff: I underestimated the impact of the 6 life Timely provided basically. The tokens are by far the most important part, but combined with the life it feels like pay 3 get 10 life and a kill a red creature. The card itself doesn’t single-handedly win, but the fact that it adds even more value to a deck that’s good at grinding into a long game is a difficult to take. That and beating double Timely is an absurd proposition, I’d rather play against double Firewalker or a Leyline + Firewalker than double Timely in most games.Red decks can win and my friends Tom Ma and Philip Yam have both had success with Goblins online (and offline in yambush’s case).

    I certainly still think the laziness of players has limited what the deck can do though. Look at the two decks that had the most success at US Nats, Caw and Pod decks, both of which had at least one group of high-level players and just a lot more work put into them than any other deck. This goes for almost any deck in the format, in terms of work put in it feels like:
    1. Caw
    2. Pod
    3. UB
    4. Twin
    5. Valakut

    and then everything else.

    Caw, RUG Pod, Vampires (Been playing it a lot on MODO and losing very little). Grim Blade or UR Twin if you feel ambitious. Steel is still a deck too, but I don’t like how it stacks up against the newer Caw builds with so much removal and 3 Gideon.

  13. 4 mana to draw a card seems pricey and slow. It would seem that either Azure Mage or Preordain should go. On the other hand, I like watching opponents draw cards into cards that allow them to draw more cards, as this goes on while I’m attacking. No one is more grateful to Preordain than an aggro vampire player.

  14. As an aside, what I’m currently MODOing with.
    4 preordain
    3 ponder
    4 lavamancer
    2 azure mage
    2 Spellskite
    4 hawk
    2 SOFAF
    2 O. Ring
    1 Jace Beleren / ITR
    4 Exarch
    3 Twin
    1 Gideon
    2 [C] Sphinx / Inferno Titan

    1 Spellskite
    2 Dismember
    4 Arc Trail
    4 Timely Reinforcements
    4 Flashfreeze

    alt SB if I don’t want to board the combo out a bunch:
    2 Dismember
    3 Timely
    3 Arc Trail
    4 Dispel
    2 Spellskite
    1 Into the Roil

  15. Prefer RUG Pod, think Bant Pod is fine, but the Ruel build is way too greedy and everyone is a psycho if they don’t change that mana base around.

    RUG and Bant Pod both eat Birds unless you can kill off their early drops and keep Pod off the table. Or they lose to themselves which sometimes happens thankfully.

  16. ““I knew Azure Mage was going to played in a control deck.” Yeah, definitely not. Anyone calling for it thought it would be in an aggro deck for an attrition win. I know that there where very few people who would play it in a control deck as it is a “bad card”.

    UB is terrible. The people that want to play it don’t know how to. It is like every other good deck. People pick it up because it is winning, but don’t understand anymore the the most straightforward plays and then don’t do well in tournaments. This is netdecking is bad.”

    Nah, there were a lot of people who knew Azure Mage was a good card. Here’s what I said in response to LSV’s set review:

    “I think you’re a bit off on Azure Mage. It’s at worst a 2.0, since it’s instant speed draw at a reasonable cost on a cheap, efficient creature. It could reasonably fit into some kind of a U/removal shell that can afford to sit back draw a card if it doesn’t need to counter/kill anything.”

    It wasn’t exactly rocket science. You couldn’t have said 100% that it would be played, but it was fairly obvious that it would be played in at least a tier 1.5-2 deck.

  17. Chapin’s pod deck looks very well crafted, as if they thought about every slot instead of just shoving whatever screamed VALUE in there. His mana looks a little shaky at first glance, but he’s one of the few people I would take at face value if he said the mana was good.

    Bant manabase it depends, I would definitely cut Tec Edge. I can’t actually accept a three-color decks that runs BOP and has colorless lands. That part blows me away. The mana is kind of all over the place in the Ruel build, but here’s how I’d run it.

    6 Forest
    2 Island
    1 Plains
    2 Sunpetal Grove
    4 Misty Rainforest
    4 Razorverge Thicket
    3 Seachrome Coast

    G: 16
    W: 10
    U: 9

    You could add another blue source, but that other than Sea-Gate or Preordain dig for Pod I can’t see much happening early with blue. The deck should also really have a singleton Sylvan Ranger if not more to protect against getting your early guys deadified and being hosed on mana.

    I’d also eye the Seachrome Coasts with weariness. The deck doesn’t need very much blue to function, especially early (just preordain) and late-game you have four WW spells you can draw.

    Also just a quick note on WU Caw vs. WUR Caw:
    U: 17
    W: 17

    U: 16-17
    W: 16-17
    R: 11-12

    The main handicap to the mana is you need to sequence ahead of time and RR can be difficult to get at times. Otherwise you have very similar color counts because you don’t run infinite colorless lands.

  18. Well played.

    But, on a less rude note, you tend to come off as arrogant in your articles. Maybe that’s your style, or whatever, but it rubs me the wrong way for some reason.

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