Gatecrash Standard: Brewing with Skullcrack

Feature Article from Craig Wescoe
Craig Wescoe
1/4/2013 10:01:00 AM
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This week I would like to share with you some of my thoughts concerning the impact Gatecrash will likely have on Standard, given the information we currently know about the set's contents. I would also like to share with you a deck I've been testing that utilizes some of the new cards that have been officially revealed and confirmed (spoiler: it involves Skullcrack!). Here's how I'll be breaking things down today:

First I would like to offer eight points of general speculation that mostly focus on the impact I believe the five remaining shocklands will have on Standard (Stomping Ground, Watery Grave, Sacred Foundry, Breeding Pool, and Godless Shrine). This should give us a sense of the broader complexion of Gatecrash Standard, and will serve as a frame of reference with which to understand various testing projects, including the one I will talk about next.

Secondly, I would like to share with you an in-the-works brew I've been testing that attempts to maximally utilize what I take to be the best (non-land) card spoiled thus far from Gatecrash: Skullcrack! The deck began as an Izzet Wizards deck, but throughout the course of testing has become something very different (a phenomenon very much in line with the spirit of the Izzet guild, right?). I call the present incarnation ‘American X', and it's my favorite deck in testing thus far.

Eight Points of General Speculation

1. Sacred Foundry will allow for Boros and UWR aggro decks to work, especially those yearning for a way to cast first turn Stromkirk Noble off something other than a Cavern of Souls. It will also mean that Ash Zealot is a real option for Boros humans since 4 Sacred Foundry and 4 Cavern of Souls will yield enough opportunities to play first turn Champion of the Parish backed by second turn Ash Zealot. The main question will not be whether Boros can work but rather whether Boros is improved or hindered by adding a third color (since aggro decks now have the lands to support more than just two colors).

2. Breeding Pool will allow for green-based Bant aggro decks to be viable. With an extra four ways to play a first turn Avacyn's Pilgrim or Arbor Elf, Bant now has the tools reliably play a three-drop on the second turn. Second turn Loxodon Smiter / Geist of Saint Traft backed by counter-magic and potentially Snapcaster Mage and/or Sphinx's Revelation (and of course Thragtusk) might become a real thing. I suspect the human theme will not be as good in Bant because the primary gain with Breeding Pool is the ability to produce green mana on the first turn for a mana accelerant, which doesn't really improve Champion of the Parish's stats.

3. Godless Shrine, and whatever else is included for Orzhov in Gatecrash, will mean there will not only be a BW Tokens deck but also a BW Humans deck (not certain, but hopeful on this one, especially if the Guildmage is a sweet human). There may also be a BWR token variant since Angel of Jubilation's mana cost would no longer restrict her in the ways she is currently being restricted. This one unfortunately has the least likelihood of actually happening, but one can hope!

4. Watery Grave means that Dimir Zombies, or possibly Grixis Zombies with Falkenrath Aristocrat, or BUG Zombies, will finally be a real thing. There will likely also be multiple Dimir based control decks popping up, though it's likely they will have other colors splashed in since, well, why not?

5. Stomping Ground and Sacred Foundry together will give Naya aggro decks a way to reliably play a first turn mana accelerant again without having to run an excessive amount of basic Forests. Much like with Bant, I don't expect this to mean a resurgence of Naya Humans but rather Naya Aggro without much of a tribal overlap. Third turn Thundermaw Hellkite seems pretty scary, and Naya will be able to do that fairly regularly if it wants to.

6. Despite people taking more damage from their lands, Thragtusk (and Rhox Faithmender) will still keep burn decks in check. Multicolor aggressive decks that include a heavy burn package, however, will flourish, mostly due to a card I will talk about in point #8.

Even if Gatecrash consisted of only the five remaining shock lands and literally every other card in the set was unplayable, it would have a significant impact on Standard. I'm guessing it will have plenty more beyond just the lands though, so there will be other new decks that cannot reasonably be foreseen in advance. The biggest change though, will be:

7. Much more liberal mana bases. People will dip into three, four, and five colors without batting an eye. Standard will be like it was in the days of Vivid lands for control decks, and like it was in Extended for aggressive decks, where nearly every deck was a Zoo deck because ‘why not play Wild Nacatl in every deck?' A more apt comparison might be Invasion Block for those who can remember that far back. Curving out with a three-color aggro deck will be nothing out of the ordinary once the gates get crashed in February. Champion of the Parish, Stromkirk Noble, to some extent the two-power zombies, and possibly even Delver of Secrets (depending on if any cheap library manipulation cards are printed). These are the most likely candidates to fill the Wild Nacatl role. Arbor Elf will step into his own and really start looking like the Birds of Paradise we have all anticipated him being, making Avacyn's Pilgrim start looking like the weaker of the two.

Now for the card I am most excited about so far (excepting the five dual lands):

8. Skullcrack will be one of the defining cards of Standard, keeping in check two of the three most defining cards (Thragtusk and Sphinx's Revelation, the third being Bonfire of the Damned). Upon seeing this card spoiled, I immediately began brewing, trying to figure out the best way to use it now that Standard is finally on the verge of having a legitimate way for aggressive decks to combat the two life gain engines that presently define the format.

I started off with the following Izzet deck:

Izzet Wizards by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
4 Goblin Electromancer
4 Hellrider
3 Nivix Guildmage
3 Snapcaster Mage
Creatures [14]
4 Brimstone Volley
2 Dissipate
2 Flames of the Firebrand
3 Pillar of Flame
1 Runechanter's Pike
3 Searing Spear
4 Skullcrack
2 Thoughtflare
Spells [21]
2 Cavern of Souls
2 Desolate Lighthouse
5 Island (255)
8 Mountain (265)
4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
Lands [25]
Deck Total [60]

2 Bonfire of the Damned
3 Devil's Play
2 Dissipate
2 Flames of the Firebrand
2 Izzet Staticaster
1 Pillar of Flame
3 Zealous Conscripts
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

I basically wanted a burn deck with a little more Staying Power that didn't have to rely so much on drawing a burn spell at the end of the game to see if it wins. The deck had some strong points and some weak points. The weakest point was Nivix Guildmage.

I figured this would be the best home for the card, and on paper it looked pretty sweet. In practice, though, it was just way underpowered compared to everything else in the format. Almost every time I drew the Guildmage, I had to work really hard just to manufacture a scenario where it was relevant. So that card got replaced by Augur of Bolas and then eventually Ash Zealot. I liked Ash Zealot the best of the three because it could pressure opponents early while being a formidable body in combat, whether on offense or defense.

The deck still lacked power. Searing Spear and Brimstone Volley only do so much on their own, and drawing multiples of each and trying to count to twenty simply doesn't cut it. I needed ways to hit harder with recurring sources of damage so that I could use my burn spells on opposing creatures and still have the opponent on a fast clock. I needed my burn spells to have to do less work to get there. So I considered some of the harder hitters of the format: Geist of Saint Traft and Thundermaw Hellkite.

After playing some games with these monsters, I was able to burn people out with much greater ease. The need for Goblin Electromancer was decreasing quickly as my creature count increased. So those got cut to make room for more copies of the two aforementioned creatures.

Thoughtflare was another card that wasn't quite good enough. Against control decks it was strong, acting as a way to turn excess lands into more action cards. Really though, I didn't want to turn my lands into action cards. Rather, I just wanted more cards. I liked being able to build up to huge Devil's Plays out of the board, and being able to play Thundermaw Hellkite with Dissipate backup. I also wanted that spot to do more against aggressive decks. I wanted Sphinx's Revelation.

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The Sage's Shoppe 2 $1.71
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Mirran Games 1 $1.78
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Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card Skullcrack Magic MTG Card
Magic MTG Card

As I said, the Devil's Plays were outperforming my expectations. They were good against the creature decks, allowing me to eventually kill two creatures with each copy drawn. They would burn out opposing blockers, clearing a path for Geist of Saint Traft. They would also act as inevitable finishers and Thwart opposing Nephalia Drownyard plans. Since they were good against aggro and good against control, why were they not main deck? So I added them to the main.

Now that I had Sphinx's Revelation and Devil's Play main, in addition to Thundermaw Hellkite and company, I needed more lands. I ended up going up to 27, and that's about where I feel most comfortable. Also now that I had so many lands, Flames of the Firebrand was mostly looking like a weaker version of Bonfire of the Damned. So I made that change as well.

The most recent change involved replacing Hellrider with Restoration Angel. Hellrider was always solid, but I really wanted more things to do at instant speed. Thundermaw Hellkite served the tap-out-and-smash-you role that Hellrider was originally designed to serve, and instead of having more of that I wanted more variation. I wanted to be able to play a more controlling game when the situation called for such instead of having to always be the one playing main phase threats. I was much happier with what Restoration Angel had to offer this deck than I was with Hellrider.

So this brings us to a configuration that is much closer to the American Midrange decks than our initial starting point of Izzet Wizards. I suppose that's a sign of quality testing, when you keep trying to make something new work until eventually you end up in the vicinity of the established decks, but with your own nuances resultant from the different path you took to arrive where you did. In its present form, the deck is not as I originally intended, but I like where it is going. I suppose in hindsight it could have been easy to predict that I would have to add a bunch of white cards to the deck (Geist of Saint Traft, Restoration Angel, and Sphinx's Revelation) to be satisfied, but we can at least pretend it's a surprise.

This is the present list:

American X by Craig Wescoe
Main Deck
3 Ash Zealot
4 Geist of Saint Traft
4 Restoration Angel
3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Thundermaw Hellkite
Creatures [18]
2 Bonfire of the Damned
3 Devil's Play
3 Dissipate
2 Searing Spear
3 Skullcrack
2 Sphinx's Revelation
Spells [15]
4 Clifftop Retreat
1 Desolate Lighthouse
2 Glacial Fortress
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Mountain (265)
4 Sacred Foundry
1 Slayers' Stronghold
4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
Lands [27]
Deck Total [60]

1 Bonfire of the Damned
1 Dissipate
2 Grafdigger's Cage
2 Izzet Staticaster
2 Mizzium Mortars
1 Moorland Haunt
3 Pillar of Flame
3 Zealous Conscripts
Sideboard [15]

Click for full deck stats & notes!

There are a few things I'm still not sure about that I plan to continue testing. The first is whether stretching the mana for Ash Zealot is worth it. Curving out with Ash Zealot into Geist of Saint Traft is a pretty severe beating, but it's possible that just playing more Searing Spears is better. This would allow me to run more Glacial Fortresses instead of Mountains, and maybe even fit in a Moorland Haunt. This would free up a sideboard spot for the fourth Skullcrack against Bant and other Thragtusk decks.

Another thing I'm not sure about is the Grafdigger's Cages in the sideboard. Are they better as Rest in Peace? Is graveyard hate even necessary? Initially I had some trouble with reanimation decks, but after making various changes to the deck, I have been winning without the sideboard hate. Regardless, this slot will require more testing to know for sure.

Mizzium Mortars is another wrath effect and also a way to handle Loxodon Smiter. It's possible that Detention Sphere is better, but I have liked Mizzium Mortars because I can cast it early to kill a Smiter or whatever and then late game I can flash it back with Snapcaster Mage for the Overload. In a deck with 27 lands, getting to 8 is very realistic. Also triple red is not an issue, given that we're already designed to flashback Devil's Play.

One last thing: concerning the name of the deck, I decided to go with ‘American' because I feel justified in being able to do so, given my aside with Costa Rican Control a while back. I'm fully aware that America is one of nearly fifty countries in the world whose flag consists primarily of Red, White, and Blue. With that said, if I called the deck ‘Italian X' or whatever, people would think, “Italian? What makes it Italian?” I'd rather draw attention to the latter half of the name: ‘X', indicating that the deck's primary strategy revolves around multiple X spells (Sphinx's Revelation, Bonfire of the Damned, and Devil's Play). It's a 27 land deck full of Fireballs, Earthquakes, and Braingeysers, just like in the beginning. It even has the Shivan Dragons ( Thundermaw Hellkite), Serra Angels ( Restoration Angel), and Counterspells ( Dissipate). I can't wait for Mana Drain to get printed because that card would be perfect for this deck!

Overall, the deck is very fun. It only has eight white creatures, and that makes me a little sad, but it relies on those eight white creatures to do the majority of the work. So if, like me, attacking with white creatures is the primary selling point of a deck, this deck might just be what you're looking for. And if burning people out while drawing a bunch of cards is your thing, the deck also has that going for it. I plan to continue testing it, along with similar strategies, because I'm pretty sure Skullcrack is the answer to Thragtusk and Sphinx's Revelation, and I really don't want to play Rakdos (the other likely home for Skullcrack).

Craig Wescoe
@Nacatls4Life on twitter

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