I remember when I was writing about standard Infect as a tier 2 deck (at best), that could surprise the field as a rogue strategy but still missed something in order to become a standard staple. I also remember Evan Erwin doing an interview at PT Paris, asking pro players "what would it take for infect to be playable in standard“. Most of them claimed that without a good poisonous one-drop or better utility cards, infect will not make it into standard.
Flash forward several weeks to the SCG open in Los Angeles, where Brian Kibler proved the naysayers wrong and rode an infect deck to 3rd place, only losing to Gerry Thompson in the semis (that doesn't even count as a loss, right?). As of now, it seems that Infect is here to stay. At first, I thought that most of the success in L.A. came from the surprise factor and the skill of the pilot (everybody knows that Brian Kibler is no slouch and he definitely knows how to win, especially if his deck contains a Dragon). But then I saw some local players doing well with the deck at some of the weekend tournaments in my local store. Then I actually sleeved the deck up and tried a couple of practice games. And then, I was convinced.
Today I would like to talk about the monster that Brian Kibler unleashed on Standard. The list he used in Los Angeles is pretty tight and I definitely don't want to argue with his card choices, but after testing the deck, I found some alternatives to some of the answers BK used for the most troublesome threats the deck faces and also some minor tweaks that can lead to new versions of Infect. I believe that the deck will survive in the standard meta and just as every deck, it will evolve over time – and today, I would like to try to predict some of the paths this evolution can take. Besides, as you probably know already, the next set will be called "New Phyrexia“, which implies a whole lot of new poison goodies (or maybe "baddies“?), so there are many reasons to believe that Infect will thrive in the coming months.
As I've already said, Infect is now a legitimate standard strategy. If you haven't seen the deck yet, this is Kibler's list from L.A.:
If you haven't played with this deck yet, I highly recommend giving it a try, as it is still fresh (and thus fun) and also relatively cheap – you don't need any big Jaces, Primeval Titans, or even Stoneforge Mystics with Swords. The basic idea behind the deck is that Phyrexian Crusader is very well positioned in the metagame right now – protection from white means that Caw-Blade will have hard time blocking the Crusader (or killing it with Condemn) and Valakut can't remove it with Bolts and Pyroclasms. Also, decks that have access to Go for the Throat and Doom Blade generally opt for the latter now, in a fear of Precursor Golem, which means they have even less answers to the 1BB Knight. But against some other decks, the Crusader will be even better – what is Boros going to do against this little "Progenitus“? And what about Burn? These decks are pretty much cold to Crusader, which is the reason why he is so well positioned right now, that he got a whole deck built around him.
Contagion Clasp and Necropede are nice "sleeper“ cards that finally got some attention when the circumstances have became right. Necropede is stellar against Boros, as it trades with Lynxes, Goblin Guides and Geopedes. Contagion Clasp, while obviously being good against creatures like Geopede or Lotus Cobra, can kill slower decks with few answers to it and often, a single hit with Nexus will be enough for the Clasp to slowly grind your opponent out. But that's by far not everything that Clasp can do. With cards like Tumble Magnet and Jace Beleren, you can end up with never running out of steam, essentially turning your Magnets into Icy Manipulators and Belerens into Phyrexian Arena that doesn't cost you life.
The deck of course has its weaknesses and even after just trying several games with it, it becomes clear that especially planeswalkers are the "Achilles‘ heel“ of this deck (and if you look at some of the comments by Brian Kibler, this is what he admits as well). The infect critters beat pretty hard when they get the chance to smack the opponent, but strangely enough, planeswalkers seem to be somewhat immune to poison, as they only receive the damage which is actually printed on the poison creatures – which is essentially half of the damage these creatures deal to players (because you only need to deal them 10 instead of 20). Brian tried to solve this problem by adding countermagic and a singleton Into the Roil, which is particularly nice against an opponent who relies on Gideon "soaking up“ the next attack, but because – as the saying goes – "there are no wrong threats, just wrong answers“, this often isn't enough, as your Mana Leaks don't do anything against planeswalkers that already hit play and generally, your answers can be easily discarded with Inquisition of Kozilek.
I think that if you want to play this deck, you'd better be prepared for Jaces and Gideons. Playing Spell Pierce main is one of the possible solutions, but for me, Volition Reins from the board has so far been the best anti-planeswalker card. Against Gideon, Reins do a great job, letting you attack freely and forcing them to attack back, uncovering their defences so that you can often strike for lethal on the next turn. And unlike removal or temporary solution such as bounce, Volition Reins even make sure that they don't just play another twin of the ‘walker you got rid of (or replay the one you bounced), since you already have one copy in play. And, as a side bonus, Reins can't be discarded by Inquisition of Kozilek, which is a huge advantage in my opinion, since almost everybody seems to be playing Inquisition right now. So far, I have played two Volition Reins in my board and I've been more than happy with them – the usual scenario goes something like "discard their Mana Leak with Inquisition, Preordain into Reins, let them play their planeswalker, steal it with Reins, go to value town“. If you look at the lists of most of the Caw-Blades or other controls that rely on planeswalkers, you will see that they literally play zero answers against Reins, apart from countermagic.
After several slight tweaks and adding the Volition Reins to the sideboard, this is what my current list looks like:
The maindeck is almost the same as Kibler's list from the SCG Open in Los Angeles. I think that Brian did a really good job in designing the deck and even after playing the deck, I didn't feel that I should change too many things. I added the third Jace Beleren (cutting the singleton Into the Roil), because the baby Jace's performance has been outstanding every time I drew him, even without a Clasp lying around to proliferate the heck out of the planeswalker. Another change I did was up the number of maindeck discard spells to five – this helps against planeswalkers pre-board and also improves the matchup against Caw-Blade, because you can wait until they play Stoneforge Mystic and then nab the Sword from their hand (a maneuver which is called "squiring“ them, because you leave them with a lowly 1/2 creature in play). The card I cut for Duress was a land – Brian's version runs 26 lands, which seems just one too many to me. The deck runs a full set of Preordains to draw out of mana troubles and doesn't really pack any mana-intensive cards (no six-drops), so 25 felt like the right number. Sure, you can sink some mana into Contagion Clasp or manlands, but I'd still be much rather drawing gas than lands, especially as the three small Jaces should be making sure that you hit your land drops.
Apart from Volition Reins, I also included a trio of Ratchet Bombs in the board. This decision came from the fact that the matchup with decks like Quest WW or Kuldrotha Red (or basically any deck that is trying to overwhelm you with sheer numbers) is very tough and I wanted at least some chance post-board. Black Zenith has a better (meaning "immediate“) effect on the board, but since Phyrexian Crusader is your best weapon against the vast majority of decks where the Zenith would be good, I chose to run the Bomb, which makes sure that the Crusader survives and can keep delivering the beats.
Now lets have a look at the most important matchups and how does the deck sideboard.
The Necropedes are rather weak in this matchup, as they trade with a Mystic or a Squadron Hawk and are terrible at trying to block many of their equipped guys (Tar Pit, Hawk). On the other hand, Ratchet Bombs are an answer to equipment (albeit a little slow) and Hawks that got out of hand. Also, because most people have read Kibler's list, they won't expect the Bomb and will tend to overextend, letting you blow up the board of Hawks and Mystics sometimes (Clasp can charge the Bomb so that it goes off one or two turns earlier than it normally would). I don't like to side in more spot removal – it's a bad idea to fight a flock of Hawks with Disfigures and Doom Blades. Tumble Magnet is there to stop any SoFF nonsense and if the Caw-Blade is missing the "Blade“ part, you generally don't care about their creatures. Overall, the matchup is not great, but definitely playable.
Again, Necropede doesn't do enough, bumping into their Overgrown Battlements and being too slow. On the other hand, Phyrexian Vatmother is a Beast that can kill them in a few swings and survives all of the removal they might have. The rest of the sideboarding is pretty self-explanatory – Tumble Magnets are ok in keeping Titans in check, but you'd much rather prevent their Titans from ever seeing play, discarding their ramp, killing their Battlements and Cobras with GfTT and poisoning them to death before they can assemble the kill combination. Valakut is a fine matchup for poison.
I don't like Vatmother in this matchup all that much, because the Boros players are likely to side in Journeys to Nowhere against Necropedes and having your four-drop pinned down by a two-mana removal can set you back big time, especially on the draw. Also, Vatmother can't profitably block a Geopede charged by a fetchland. The sideboard plan here involves siding in more removal so that you have enough time to draw your Crusaders and win. Ratchet Bomb is there to prevent the opponent from overruning you with Squadron Hawks, one of the only ways they can actually beat you. With so many great cards against Boros, the matchup is really good.
That's right, U/B control is back at the top. For Infect, the matchup against U/B is not great, as Phyrexian Crusader is just a 2/2 infect bear with irrelevant protections against them, but cards like Contagion Clasp, discard and Jace Beleren are pretty good in this matchup. Volition Reins from the board is also a great answer to Grave Titan, a card that puts you under serious pressure otherwise. The Vatmother is a card I'm not 100% sure about, because when you play it on turn four, you give the opponent a chance to slam a Jace, bounce your Vatmother and set up a great board position. Therefore, I would only tap out for the Vatmother if you already have a Crusader in play (so that you can kill Jace if they use the -1 ability on your 4/5) or if you have five lands in play and a sixth one plus Reins in hand – this way, you can let them bounce your Vatmother, steal their Jace and win. Overall, the matchup is pretty even.
I've mentioned in the introduction that there are many possible ways how the current Infect deck can evolve. One of the options is to hire Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas as your hitman. However, such an approach demands significant changes from Kibler's deck, as you need a lot of artifacts to make good use of Tezz. Also, Tezzeret's ultimate doesn't fit into the poison theme at all, so you will never be able to utilize the blue-black planeswalker like some other decks can. However, I believe that the possibility to turn your infect dudes into 5/5s makes up for this downside.
When building a Tezzeret Infect deck, it is useful to look back at some of the successful Tezz designs from various post-MBS standard events. Christian Hüttenberger played an interesting Tezzeret deck in PT Paris and while his win condition involved dealing the full twenty, not just ten in poison, his deck did include several cards that could really be put to good use in a deck where Tezzeret would be working with infectious colleagues. The card that looks the best is Throne of Geth – I think that if you bend the deck around this card (which is not that hard to do, since you are planning to win with Poison Counters anyway), the Throne can give you some amazing results. This is what a Tezzeret-Infect concoction could look like:
I haven't played with this particular version enough to be able to build a good sideboard, but the maindeck seemed fairly solid to me – and Throne of Geth really is pretty nuts in the deck. I think that this kind of approach is better against a more controllish field, because you have more planeswalkers than U/B control and can actually win the planeswalker fight sometimes, with a turn three Jace or Tezzeret. However, to say with a satisfying level of certainty if this list is better than the previous one, I would need more testing. I can assure you that I'm going to spend more time with Phyrexian Crusader and friends in the coming weeks, so I will keep you informed about anything interesting that I come across.
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