I do not have enough time to play Magic to take an existing deck and play it better than everyone else playing that deck. Sometimes a deck is so good that you don’t have any choice in the matter — but those are the times I just stop playing a format. Standard Magic right now might be as diverse as I’ve ever seen it.. even though there are some cards that are the tent-poles of the entire format. Unlike the spring of 2010 or 2011, those tent-poles can’t all go into the same one or two decks, which leads us to a great diverse field.
This great article on Star City (Select) describes the current meta: no deck is more than 20% of the field. As a TCG designer, let me say that an environment is doing well when there are at least 5 meaningful choices to bring to a moneyed tournament. Of course, even though there are many different decks, there are some things in common with them. At the end of the day, the decks are either aggro (Zombies, G/W Aggro), midrange (Jund, Junk aka Reanimator, G/W midrange) or control (almost all of them U/W and then either splashing black, red, or nothing). In a healthy meta, game designers prefer to see the classic control beating midrange, midrange beating aggro, aggro beating control triangle… and people who want to win tournaments try to break that triangle wide open.
So, to that end, I present a deck that is designed to win every matchup. To do that, I’ve built a sideboard that is not designed to stop specific cards, but it is designed to allow me to shift my deck into a different role. Presenting: I Set The Tempo.
I Set The Tempo
4 Stromkirk Noble
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Goblin Electromancer
4 Snapcaster Mage
2 Izzet Charm
4 Brimstone Volley
4 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear
4 Sulfur Falls
3 Steam Vents
3 Desolate Lighthouse
1 Izzet Charm
3 Dungeon Geists
2 Bonfire of the Damned
4 Thundermaw Hellkite
What this deck presents in game one is the most tempo-heavy deck-with-counterspells in the format. Your role is to set the tempo. You want to play a creature on turn 1 every single game (unless they play an elf – always shoot the elf). You want to get one creature out there, and then burn their blockers and counter their removal, and win in 5 or 6 turns. How you sideboard depends on the role you choose to play. You need to decide if you are going to shift into being the control deck.
You love playing against control or other decks that need time to get their plan together, because the majority of those decks can’t deal with a turn 1 creature that gets bigger. Usually either of those creatures will have dealt 6 damage before dealt with — and “one mana, one card, six damage” is a fine ratio. And, if you get a bit lucky with your draw, you can Brimstone Volley at the end of the turn where they do finally deal with your creature, and hit them for five more. You’re more than half-way done.
Don’t counter their card-drawing spells, because them spending mana to draw cards is you gaining even more tempo. When you see that their plan involves winning after turn 5, you should be throwing burn at their head. Every single time they are tapped out throw burn at them, and even sometimes when they aren’t. While sometimes Searing Spear reads “tap three of your opponent’s lands and they discard a card,” that is OK. Push as hard as you can.
Sideboard vs Control:
-2 Izzet Charm
-2 Pillar of Flame
+2 Desolate Lighthouse
Adding the two lands allows you to bring in the Hellriders. Yes, they are probably playing Supreme Judgment after that. Who cares? You just spent 2RR to deal 6 or 7 damage. And now they are tapped out and you can burn them out from there, yah?
There are times when you want to become truly midrange against control… especially if their control involves 1/1 flying Spirit tokens. Bring in all three Lighthouses and all 4 Thundermaw Hellkites at that point. But those Thundermaws aren’t in your sideboard just for that…
You love playing against aggro, mostly because your first game is a bit of a coin flip and your sideboarded games are massively in your advantage. You are an aggro deck that can counter their largest threat, no matter what that threat is. If you are playing against zombies, that coin-flip becomes rock-paper-scissors-you-win-ties. Even if they play a Cavern of Souls to ensure their zombie hits the battlefield, that’s fine. Your burn is better than theirs, your creature curve is just as low as theirs (meaning you can block if you must), and you have reach and they don’t. Besides, 12 of their creatures can’t block (Geralf’s Messenger, Gravecrawler, and Diregraf Ghoul) so you have the tempo edge. Beat in early, burn out late.
What is great about playing against Aggro is that you have the easiest time knowing what to bring in:
Sideboard vs Aggro:
+3 Desolate Lighthouse
+1 Izzet Charm
+3 Dungeon Geists
+2 Bonfire of the Damned
+4 Thundermaw Hellkite
-4 Stromkirk Noble
-4 Goblin Electromancer (usually)
-2 Brimstone Volley (usually)
-3 others (depending on the matchup)
Some additional notes:
If they are on the Cavern of Souls plan, remove some counterspells not all of them — because your opponent will have some burn or Rancor or Searing Spear or something else worth countering.
Why bring in the Dungeon Geists? They provide a tempo shift, allow you to trade as necessary, and they kill Spirit tokens (if someone tries that plan again), but most-importantly they draw your opponent’s removal spell. Since you can easily deal 10 to the dome with your burn spells, Delver of Secrets and Dungeon Geists are must-kill creatures. That works out well for you when you drop “Baneslayer Dragon” (Thundermaw Hellkite) soon thereafter.
Why are there only two Bonfires in the sideboard? Your deck has 24 lands post-sideboard, and you really don’t ever want more than 5 of them on the battlefield. You will discard the excess to dig into your deck using Izzet Charm and Desolate Lighthouse. This means two things: you never want to draw a Bonfire early and you won’t have the mana to cast it for more than 2 damage if you don’t use the Miracle cost. At one point I was running 4, then only 3, thinking I could just cycle them away if they came up at the wrong time. That is true… but since we are not a “true” control deck we can’t waste time like that. Cycling cards away is the last thing we want to do, but we will do it if nothing else is available.
This is your toughest matchup. Depending on the nature of their plan, you can’t reliably shift up or down. Against a good midrange player, especially one packing Cavern of Souls and Centaur Healer, you are going to have a difficult time winning game one. But all is not lost… Do not try to win this matchup by clearing their blockers, because that isn’t going to happen. You have few ways to deal with 4-toughness. Instear, you win by flying over with a Insectile Aberration and throwing burn spells at their head.
You have to play nearly flawless Magic to win this matchup in game one. Being smart with your countermagic is key. Do not counter their creatures that cost less than 4 mana, unless they can stop your insect. Even then, you would rather spend a burn spell on a blocker and save your counterspells for their removal… but that option is not always available. Also, knowing when to spend that Izzet Charm to get more burn (or to find a Snapcaster Mage, which is basically the same thing in this match) is huge.
There are many flavors of midrange, and you have the tools to deal with almost any of them if you have the experience to know what your opponent is playing. This is the largest hole in my Magic skill set — I can’t get into my opponent’s head like many of the greats can. This is why I complained about this deck on Twitter recently… it seems like if I was better at the game, this deck would take me places. So when one of you pros reading this article cash in using this deck, I’ll take a physical version of Thundermaw Hellkite as a thank you gift. Seems fair, right?
A couple of other obvious notes: the value of your Izzet Charm goes up if they have Cavern of Souls. Cavern determines if you are the aggro or the control deck in the matchup, but it does so in a strange way. If they have Cavern, you are the control deck. Really. this deck uses countermagic to protect your early creature advantage. If they have Cavern, your early creature advantage will be trumped by their midgame Huntmasters and Healers and Angels and, of course, Thragtusks. Instead, you need to shift into being the control deck by relying less on countermagic and more on… control.
Sideboard vs Cavernous Midrange
+3 Desolate Lighthouse
+3 Dungeon Geists
+4 Thundermaw Hellkite
(usually +2 Bonfire of the Damned)
What you drop to make room for those cards is completely based on their deck. Sometimes Pillar of Flame will be of little value. If they are midrange without humans, I will usually drop the Stromkirk Nobles. You can reduce the countermagic too, but don’t overdo it — chances are they will have some spell you’d like to deal with (Rancor, Dreadbore, planeswalkers) which can’t be sheltered by the Cavern.
Dungeon Geists require a special comment here… they turn Thragtusk into “4G, gain 5 life.” Obviously as the aggro player you don’t like that, but as the control player you can live with it. Ideally you are playing them with 6 lands on the battlefield, leaving 2 mana up for Negate or Izzet Charm.
In this matchup, you win by flying over with a creature. Their life total doesn’t matter too much as you have the long-game inevitability. Make that Hellkite and watch it win.
Sideboard vs. non-Cavernous Midrange
+2 Bonfire of the Damned
+2 Desolate Lighthouse
(+1 Izzet Charm?)
In this matchup, you are the aggro player. Your Stromkirks are staying in, and you are trying to win by clearing/countering blockers and countering removal. This is not the best plan, but it is the best way to win in this difficult pairing. You must counter the turn 5 Thragtusk. If this means letting the turn 4 Huntmaster resolve, so be it. If this means not tapping out to play a turn 4 Hellrider going second, so be it.
Cards I tried but had to let go:
Guttersnipe: At the RTR prerelease I killed someone on turn 5 on the power of a turn 3 Guttersnipe, so I had to see if it would work in Standard. The answer is no, not yet, but if you can find a way to make room for it in the sideboard I’d suggest trying it yourself. Resolving it on turn 3 versus control means that you have inevitability — every counterspell dings them for two. That was hilarious.
Nivmagus Elemental: This was replaced by Stromkirk Noble. One huge advantage this has over the Noble is that you can upgrade your Pillar of Flames into +2/+2 against decks without creatures, and that was fantastic. Against decks with creatures, it still isn’t always horrible to make a “turn-one” 3/4. And, of course, versus control this lets you eat each of your spells that won’t resolve.
Think Twice: This deck got much better once I removed the card draw. Do not be tempted to put it back in. Aggro decks don’t want to waste a turn drawing a card fro two mana, and we are trying to be the fastest control deck in the format, so we don’t have the time either. (Izzet Charm can be a damage spell or a counterspell, so it gets played. Desolate Lighthouse is the ideal land for us, too, because we can add them in “for free.”)
Essence Scatter: This was very difficult to cut. On the one hand, it stops Thragtusk and Restoration Angel and other spells trapped in a creature’s body. On the other hand, those midrange creatures shouldn’t matter to us because of the rest of the deck, and the early-game creatures get burned out as necessary. Syncopate replaced the 2 of these I was running; I’d be happy to hear your experiences using it.
Ash Zealot: Clearly a powerful creature, but you’d rather have Goblin Electromancer against an unknown opponent (as it is a better creature every turn other than turn two, because of all of your instants). Sometimes you run into a situation with taking damage yourself from a Snapcaster-flashedback spell, but that is very, very infrequent. And since you aren’t playing, Think Twice, we aren’t flashing back spells much at all… again, maybe I just had bad luck using her. I’d love to hear what others think.
Adding a third color: But “mana is so great right now!” Why not play with a third color? Not worth the tempo loss. This deck is the aggro deck with reach presideboard, or the fastest control deck in the format postsideboard. Adding a third color wrecks that plan.
Izzet Staticaster: This is a very important card for Izzet but there wasn’t sideboard room. Cards like this one really screw with the combat math, and are the perfect tool for making your opponent think before they act. If you can find room to put it into your sideboard, please let me know your results.
This deck gives me the illusion of control. It lets me minimize the threat of manaflood by running so few in the main deck and having so many card-cycling options in the sideboarded versions. I’ve even won games keeping a one-land six-card hand, because sometimes Delver or Stromkirk Just Gets There.
I’ve posted this deck because I’d love to make an even-better version of it and actually win something with it. Help me get better at this game, would you? Suggestions welcome. PS: You can see a nifty display of this deck on Tapped Out.
This has to be one of the most detailed and well written guides that accompany a playlist that I’ve ever seen. I wish more websites spent more time telling you how to actually PLAY the decks that they are advertising, rather than just posting the list and saying “Good luck!” The way you describe how the deck could handle an aggro deck or a midrange deck really made me feel that I could pick this up tomorrow and have a real chance at winning. That’s something I haven’t felt in a while.
And your deck is affordable! Bonus!
Thanks again for the fantastic post, Andrea. Please keep them coming.
What about Runechanters pike? Have you had a go with that yet? or is it just not “control” enough? Maybe new Jace would be cool aswell? He certainly draws the cards if you wanna go control mode.
Great guide btw! It makes me wanna play the deck and I have a good idea of what i’d get if I do. Big thumbs up!