Tuesday 19 February 2013

Balls Out Blue

Cloudfin Raptor
I stand by my claim that Cloudfin Raptor is the best cube card from Gatecrash and have been playing him to good effect in an array of decks since its dismal beginnings in the evolve deck. I had an itch I wanted to scratch since reviewing it when I described the god draw of Cloudfin Raptor followed by Delver of Secrets and a Phantasmal Bear into flipping the Delver and dropping another 3 power flier on turn three for a total of 11 power, 8 attacking and 9 in the air from only blue cards. Agro blue has been viable in the cube since Lorwynn block however it needed support, it typically had to play as a control deck for a turn or two before it could start to apply pressure simply because it had nothing good it could lay to pressure early. It would also get outclassed by dorks from other colours and would need to run equipment, countermagic and/or control magic effects to be able to compete. As such you would end up with a deck that looked rather awkward like someone had taken a Faeries deck, a Skies deck and a mono blue control deck, shuffled them together and taken a random pile for their deck. Much has changed for blue in the cheap dork department over recent years and blue is just about reaching the critical mass of decent tempo early dorks to be able to do away with all the ugly control looking stuff and play a much more dedicated and streamlined beatdown deck. This list still has a tiny bit of countermagic and a way to steal their dorks but they are incidental and there to perform other roles in the deck as well, rather than just desperately plugging holes in the deck.

Phantasmal Bear25 Spells

Mana Crypt

Aether Vial
Cloudfin Raptor
Phantasmal Bear

Gitaxian Probe
Vapour Snag
Cursed Scroll
Delver of Secrets

Looter il-Kor
Cursed ScrollWaterfront Bouncer
Snapcaster Mage
Phantasmal Image

Gilded Drake

Grand Architect
Trinket Mage
Serendib Efreet
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner

Cryptic Command
Molten Tail Masticore
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Riftwing Cloudskate
Timayo, the Moon Sage

Temporal Mastery

15 Lands

Faerie Conclave
Seat of the Synod
13 Islands

Trinket MageI was in shock at what blue can now flop down in the first few turns with Raptor on the scene, I am still in shock as to how well this deck performed. It is all so counter intuitive, especially to someone who has been playing magic since the times when Ernham Djinn was the best dork about. I would be playing against an agro style deck with this list and they would swing with a 2 power beater and I would snap block with my Trinket Mage assuming trading and stabilizing is the correct play. Then I would look at the board state and think, hold up, I'm winning this tempo game, I shouldn't block, I should take it in the face and hit you back like a good agro deck. I was facing a mono black agro deck as one of my matchups which along with red deck wins is about the worst matchup possible. Mono black has far better dorks with a nicer spread on the curve, it has better ramp, better removal and even better card advantage. The man handling this deck gave the mono black deck still fills me with disbelief. Not only was the blue disruption keeping pace with the black, the creatures were winning the race with many fat enough to block and much more evasion floating around. I think this list would goldfish the same speed or quicker than most good mono black agro lists. While I did not get to try it out against the fearsome red deck wins I did face a Boros deck however it was somewhat midrange and therefore inherently less able to compete in the vital tempo wars.

Grand ArchitectThe best card in this deck by a country mile is the Grand Architect, he just does so many things you can really abuse. Crusade on a dork is pretty good for any colour at three mana but in blue where you have more utility guys and smaller evasion dorks continuous pump effects are even more efficient. Then you get to turn all your dorks into Vedalken Engineers with haste (sort of). I am fairly sure if there were two cards, one with the mana effect and the other with the pump and both 1/3 for 1UU, that I would play both in this deck. It almost feels like a disadvantage having them on the same dude as he is the removal target and dies so fast in every game. Even so, getting one turn of boosted attackers and extra mana for artifacts will generally put you in a much better place that you were. The Grand Architect makes cards like Looter il-Kor and Waterfront Bouncer much better all round dorks and much more useful throughout the game. Architect also allows you to include cards like Cursed Scroll and Molten-Tail Masticore in this case and things like Vedalken Shackles more typically, all of which really aid you in being able to deal with dorks that otherwise blue has more trouble with.

Riftwing Cloudskate
Bounce is already pretty good in the cube with it being such a fast format however this deck is one of the very best homes for it. As this deck mono blue it is unable to really destroy anything in play at all without help from its artifact buddies.Bounce is a cheap and versatile way to at least get things out of play. With this deck being able to apply such good pressure from the outset the game is either over before a recast can happen or at least the card disadvantage aspect of bounce is irrelevant as the game never stops being about the tempo. Under such conditions Boomerang is rather like a cheaper instant speed Vindicate. Bounce is obviously cheap, especially compared to Control Magic effects. As the agro blue deck has reached the critical mass of cheap tempo dorks the deck has been able to shift away from a reliance on the expensive and inconsistent Control Magic cards towards relying on the cheap and versatile bounce cards.

Gilded Drake is a card that works really well if you have a good amount of bounce as it is cheap re-usable removal. Compared to Vedalken Shackles it is far less clumsy and far harder to disrupt as well as being able to take multiple dorks at once. I mentioned this was an incidental Control Magic effect meaning it is so cheap and effective in a list like this that it is being used as tempo removal rather than the slower card advantage removal style of cards like Sower of Temptation. Gilded Drake is also quite a good card for evolving up the Raptor which is surprisingly hard to find when restricted to agro blue dorks.

Temporal Mastery
One thing blue is well suited for in terms of an agro deck is the ability to take extra turns which is something that scales very well with a tempo lead. Five mana to take an extra turn is a lot but still very playable in a blue beat down deck provided you can reasonably get to that mana and also have card filtering and the like to make use of it at other points in the game prior to being able to cast it. Temporal Mastery is another new blue card that adds quite a lot to this archetype, as this list already has Jace for more bounce, and Brainstorm to enhance Delver and Snapcaster ,the Temporal Mastery is well supported and is quite reliably a two mana Time Walk, or Time Walk as its known. At such a low cost you can not only exploit a tempo lead but also easily extend one as well.

Agro blue decks have the ability to regain lost card advantage fairly easily compared to most other agro colours with the possible exception of black. This enables them to cover their weaknesses more effectively with cards that are cost you card advantage such as Chrome Mox. Even things like Aether Vial fall into this category to some extent as they are not a threat themselves. Playing direct card draw is a good way to lose tempo which is exactly what this deck doesn't want to do however to support the artifact ramp, and to some extent the bounce as well, it does require some card advantage. The best compromise on this front I felt was to play planeswalkers who can effect the board or draw cards so as to gain the appropriate advantage for the state of the game. I also shied away from the more extreme cards like Foil so as to limit the extent I would need more draw.

Daze and Gitaxian Probe were good ways of adding value to the deck at low costs and eeking out small advantages. Daze is not at all needed in the deck but fairly well compliments the lowish land count, most of which are islands, and also keeps people honest in play, even when you don't have it. This can give you a tiny tempo boost when people are being "honest" or it can completely blow someone out and take the game should they not respect the Daze. With the probe it feels like I rarely care about the life and will be able to play optimally with the extra information. In addition to this I have a very shallow selection of powerful cards and by effectively reducing my deck to 39 cards with the Probe I increase the creature count without reducing the power level of the deck. It is probably right to pay two life (unless against an agro red deck) to Probe on turn one in the hope you draw one of your good one drops as they can be so swingy.

I mentioned Masticore and Cursed Scroll being extra good due to the mana generation of Grand Architect however they are plenty good in their own right. The other mana saving and generating artifacts in the deck also improve these cards by freeing up mana to get more activations. The two cards also compliment each other well in that they both offer direct damage however one is large late game damage and the other is cheaper one off pot shots. Blue has very little direct damage of its own and although you play bounce and steal effects to offset this it is still best to have a rounded selection of answers and in the case of Scroll and Masticore usually more efficient as well. Not only do they provide redundancy to your anti-creature arsenal they also bolster the effectiveness of your evasive dorks by giving you even greater reach but from an alternate source thus making it harder to defend against all fronts. The Scroll makes Trinket Mage really worth it as you need a powerful problem card like it or Skullclamp as well as the more dull but highly useful mana sources to push the Grey Ogre to abusive power levels. The Masticore also has its other perks byond being an artifact source of damage and that is simply that it is a very hefty dork you are very happy to send into the red zone. Blue has little in the way of fat and this is the best fit for the deck by quite some distance.

Molten-Tail Masticore
Two final mentions of strong cards in the deck are Looter il-Kor and Riftwing Cloudskate which both perform very well in this kind of deck. Although blue has gotten some impressive one drops and the powerhouse of Snapcaster recently it is still rather lacking in two drops. Either they are pure utility dorks and apply very little pressure on their own or they, like Snapcaster, require other conditions to be usefully cast. This list has both Gilded Drake and Phantasmal Image on two which are rarely things you want to cast on turn two. Both of these dorks are good to lay on turn two regardless of the game state and won't diminish in value if you are only playing them to be mana efficient like a Snapcaster or Spellstutter Sprite would. Neither offer much pressure and may seem very similar to making a Waterfront Bouncer in terms of improving your board position or tempo. It turns out this is far from the case but for fairly different reasons. The Looter nibbles away at their life total while giving you far improved odds of curving out smoothly and having the appropriated answers. He seems to slowly gather a momentum for the deck while never becoming weak himself as the game progresses. He is a pest to play planeswalkers against and is rather scary as a threat when your life total gets into the single digits. The Riftwing Cloudskate is just a great all round body and effect for this deck that is worth the wait for his lovely suspend cost. Another royal pain for planeswalkers to cope with and a significant tempo swing on the turn it arrives, especially as you have spare mana to do other things in the same turn. Late game it is still fine to cast at five for more immediate effect but it is primarily in the deck because it costs two and allows for better curving out while offering bounce and evasion to compliment and offer redundancy to much of the rest of the deck.

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