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By: Psychobabble, PB
Nov 27 2013 11:45am
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For the past two block constructed formats, the most powerful blue card has, without question, been a sphinx:

sphinx's revelation

Sphinx's Revelation was very clearly the defining card of RtR block constructed, and being released in the first set meant that it had plenty of time to make an impact on the format. It didn't take much to predict that Prognostic Sphinx was going to be the best blue card in the Theros set, as I did in my set review. Even if blue wasn't as generally weak as it is in the block, a deep-scrying, conditionally hexproof flying monster has a pretty large amount of inherent power, especially in a format with no wraths and almost no edicts. Today I'll be taking a close look at a deck which I've personally had the most success with in the format so far which really showcases the power of the sphinx - UG midrange.

Deck submission contest

As I announced last week, I'm going to be running a deck submission contest with a 2-tix Theros card prize for at least the period while we don't have daily events (on that note.... w00t, they're returning after December 11!!!). I may continue it after that if I keep getting submissions of the quality of this week's winning effort from DeftJackal though!

As a quick recap, the rules of the contest were to submit a decklist that had won an 8-person queue, or at least split the final round, with bonus points if the deck was novel and had screenshots or video to show it off. Deftjackal came through in a big way, with a really interesting mono black deck that splashes blue for maindeck Curse of the Swine and a couple of sideboard options including, most appropriately for sphinx week, Prognostic Sphinx. Here's the deck:

 

Deck context winner - Bu control
 
Creatures
4 Baleful Eidolon
3 Nighthowler
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
2 Abhorrent Overlord
4 Agent of the Fates
17 cards

Other Spells
4 Thoughtseize
2 Whip of Erebos
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
4 Read the Bones
4 Hero's Downfall
2 Curse of the Swine
18 cards
 
Lands
15 Swamp
5 Island
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
4 Temple of Deceit
25 cards

Sideboard
2 Annul
3 Keepsake Gorgon
2 Dark Betrayal
2 Disciple of Phenax
1 Nighthowler
2 Prognostic Sphinx
1 Nimbus Naiad
2 Pharika's Cure
15 cards
 
Erebos, God of the Dead

 

The deck is very interesting to me. The whole idea that black needs to splash blue for more removal seems slightly weird in the context of the colour pie, but curse really does shore up one weakness of the mono black deck which is dealing with huge threats like stormbreath dragon after they resolve. Hero's downfall obviously does the trick, but it's only 4 cards and decks like GR can overwhelm you with threats, forcing you to rely on fragile deathtouch creatures that die to burn or get bypassed by polis crusher. I'll let the videos speak for themselves - there's a few play errors on both sides in these games which are easier to spot in hindsight, but you can see some of the power of the deck and the value of the light blue splash come through:

Round 1:

Round 2:

Round 3:

Thanks DeftJackal for a great submission, it's a worthy winner of the first Around the Block deck submission contest. If anyone else is able to play in and win one of these events (which I recognise aren't firing super-often), please send in your submissions to psychobabbleswccg at gmail.com! See last week's column for a full explanation of the contest.

UG midrange

UG always feels like a particularly awkward colour combination to me. There's no inherent synergy between the colours thematically and while the simic mechanic in RTR block (evolve) was fairly flavourful as far as backstory goes, the end result was giant vanilla dudes that just beat face which didn't feel at all blue. Anyhow, colour/flavour mismatch aside, today's deck hums along like a well oiled machine and is clearly one of the best decks in the format, and in my opinion might actually just be the best deck outright. Don't take it from me though, this is the deck that uber-grinder and one time full time MTGO player xMiMx was playing in the format before DEs were pulled:

 

UG midrange
xMiMx (3-1) THS Block Constructed Daily #6282022 on 11/12/2013
Creatures
4 Boon Satyr
2 Master of Waves
4 Polukranos, World Eater
4 Prognostic Sphinx
3 Prophet of Kruphix
3 Sedge Scorpion
4 Sylvan Caryatid
2 Voyaging Satyr
26 cards

Other Spells
2 Bident of Thassa
3 Dissolve
4 Voyage's End
9 cards
 
Lands
10 Forest
7 Island
1 Temple of Abandon
3 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Mystery
25 cards

Sideboard
2 Annul
3 Gainsay
3 Bow of Nylea
1 Curse of the Swine
1 Dissolve
1 Fade into Antiquity
2 Hunt the Hunter
2 Master of Waves
15 cards
 
Prognostic Sphinx

 

As I noted in the weekly statistics segment of this column, UG was a deck which took a couple of weeks for players to figure out but then quickly shot up to at one point 20% of the reported metagame. It's unquestionably a midrange deck at heart, wanting to win with powerful four and five drops while using Voyage's End and Dissolve to selectively disrupt your opponents. The best card in the deck by far is the afore-mentioned Prognostic Sphinx, and I'm not just saying that because it's Sphinx week. It actually feels pretty difficult at times to win with the deck if you don't land the big flying cat at some point - Polukranos is pretty powerful obviously, but many decks in the format are well equipped to beat it at this point, and the deck lacks the redundancy of powerful ground pounders that enables something like RG or mono green to overwhelm their opponent's answers and you also don't have any spot removal to get all the little deathtouch creatures (Baleful Eidolon, Sedge Scorpion) out of the way unlike RG.

Prognostic Sphinx does it all, though. Scry 3 is incredibly powerful, and feels basically broken when you combine it with Bident of Thassa. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to highlight xMiMx's list above is that it contains two maindeck Bident's, unlike most others, which I think is the right call - note too the synergy between Bident and maindeck (Sedge Scorpions) which your opponent will often be reluctant to block. The Sphinx also pressures troublesome planeswalkers like (Xenagos the Reveller) and Elspeth, Sun's Champion in a way that dumb ground beaters basically can't. He also wears a Boon Satyr better than any other creature in the game, although do note that suiting up before Elspeth comes down is one of the few ways that Prognostic Sphinx can actually be killed. The Sphinx also blocks Stormbreath Dragon, and can even trade for a monstrous one when combined with a Boon Satyr. A suited Sphinx blocks Abhorrent Overlord too, which is sometimes relevant. All in all, as you play around with the deck, you'll probably start to feel as I did that it's essentially Prognostic Sphinx + 56 other cards - it really is that important to the deck, and xMiMx runs SIX mana accelerants to get it out faster too.

One other card I feel I should talk about is Master of Waves. This is a powerful card, there's no question about it. The problem in block is that there's just not enough early blue symbols to make it the powerhouse that it is in standard. You really want at least two other blue symbols on the field to make it even worth casting, and four to make it exciting. One version of this deck, piloted by the high-profile player Brian David Marshall (BDM), actually won a premier event without any copies of the card in the deck. I heard after the fact though that that was because he didn't own any copies of the card online, and that he would have played them over his maindeck Horizon Chimera's if he had. I think overall the card is better than the other options available, but in the heavier green version such as this it is decidedly average.

As I played with the list, I became less and less impressed with its use of Polukranos. The deck doesn't have any Nykthos or Xenagos to have the potential of going totally nuts with the monstrous, and no Nylea to give it potential trample, so all you're really getting is a vanilla ground pounder that the format is VERY prepared to deal with. Everything from the aforementioned deathtouchers, to repeatable token producers (Xenagos, Akroan Horse, Elspeth), to opposing monstrous creatures or just straight removal deals with it and you get no extra value out of the process. Sure, it's nice to flash it in with Prophet of Krufix at the end of the opponent's turn for a surprise beatdown, but so often there's a random mana dork or chump blocker lying around to stop that plan anyway if the damage is going to really matter. I was also ultimately unimpressed with Boon Satyr. Yes, the flash-threat is nice when combined with dissolve, but the deck doesn't really have enough early pressure to play the tempo game that well and satyr dies so easily to all of the red removal. Satyr was of course great when you got to suit it up, but it rarely felt like you had time enough to do that when it was relevant, unless you were already well in control of the game at which point it felt win-more.

All of that got me thinking - what about a heavier blue version of the deck? If I cut Polukranos and Boon Satyr in favour of more blue permanents, that would increase the power of Master of Waves without losing too much power given how average those cards were in the deck. The format feels overall pretty weak to flyers to me, so Vaporkin and Horizon Chimera were legitimate potential sources of damage, and both of them add blue symbols for Master. Vaporkin is even an elemental so it gets buffed by the blue lord. I rounded the deck out with a couple of Omenspeaker's to add more blue symbols and smooth draws, and a singleton Thassa primarily for the blue symbol and scry (sort of like a three-mana Omenspeaker), but also for late game unblockable reach and even potentially beatdowns with enough blue symbols. This is where I ended up:

 

Ug midrange
 
Creatures
4 Sylvan Caryatid
4 Vaporkin
2 Omenspeaker
4 Horizon chimera
4 Master of Waves
4 Prognostic Sphinx
2 Prophet of Krufix
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
25 cards

Other Spells
4 Voyage's End
4 Dissolve
2 Bident of Thassa
10 cards
 
Lands
8 Forest
9 Island
1 Temple of Abandon
3 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Mystery
25 cards

Sideboard
2 Annul
3 Gainsay
3 Bow of Nylea
2 Curse of the Swine
1 Fade into Antiquity
3 Sedge scorpion
1 Swan Song
15 cards
 
Master of Waves

 

Now, I don't want to pretend like I've broken the format or anything, but this deck's been doing really well for me. I've gone 6-0 in 2-person queues with it, including one against a standard esper control deck when I accidentally joined the wrong format queue! The Vaporkins put on a meaningful amount of early pressure, which you can back up with Dissolve and flashed Horizon Chimera on subsequent turns. Both of them work fantastically well with Bident of Thassa if you get that going too. You play enough good targets for burn that you're not too weak to it, and you still have plenty of larger threats in the longer game. I've found that the deck plays enough symbols to make Master of Waves genuinely good a lot of the time, 4 tokens is not uncommon and more does happen. Master tokens are simply incredible in combination with Bident of Thassa too when you're making that many.

I really enjoy the sideboard here. Annul is an amazing card in the format, especially against mono black where the cards you care most about are enchantments (Whip, Erebos). Swan Song is also great in that matchup, it's a good cheap answer to (Thoughtsieze) and Hero's Downfall, and you have plenty of ways to deal with the bird token. Bow of Nylea is an absolute house, every one of its (ridiculous) five abilities other than anti-mill has proved relevant to me. Here's a few tricks to note:

  • You can ping Abhorrent Overlord harpies, forcing them to sacrifice the overlord sooner. In fact, an untapped bow will kill a 2-devotion count overlord on the first opponent's upkeep after it comes down.
  • The ping also kills Swan Song birds and Cavalry Pegasi.
  • Pumping your Sylvan Caryatid's can be pretty relevant in longer games, especially if you start forcing chump-attacks with Bident of Thassa. That combination can also completely neutralise Akroan Horse's token generation if needed.
  • A single counter on your sphinx does put it into elspeth range, but also lets it trade with Stormbreath Dragon (alternatively, you could block then ping to finish off).
  • An untapped bow with mana open stops Magma Jets or opposing bows from killing your Horizon Chimeras.
  • Pumping Master of Waves tokens prevents them from dying if the master is killed, something that's highly relevant in grindier matches against BWR or mono black.
  • The life gain puts you out of range of Gray Merchant and the GR deck's burn/stormbreath dragons, and can allow you to race an unblockable threat from the UW heroic deck.
  • Deathtouch attackers makes your Master of Waves tokens really annoying, and you put your opponent to all sorts of tough decisions if you also have a Bident out.

Overall I've found both versions of the deck to be incredibly resilient and able to pull games out of nowhere. Here's a screenshot from one of my queue games where I felt like I was losing for the whole game, but managed to pull it back in the end.

After being appropriately punished for tapping out for bident with a follow-up stormbreath, I was forced to counter another one on the following turn, rather than being able to bounce/counter the original one as planned. My opponent then used Magma Jet on the Horizon Chimera I was hoping to double block the dragon with, and at one point he also used Hero's Downfall to tap down Prognostic Sphinx and try to get another hit in when I was down to 4 life, but I still had the Voyage's End in hand to foil that. After that though, I was able to use Bow of Nylea's lifegain to stabilise and pull out an improbable win after ripping a huge master of waves.

How to play it

This deck is filled with difficult decisions. The fundamental difficulty arises because you need to tapout for four or five mana to play most of your meaningful threats, but your only way of permanently answering a threat is to use your 3-mana counterspell on it. Planeswalkers in particular are problematic once resolved, unless you're able to put on pressure with flyers, you'll have a really tough time dealing with Xenagos and Elspeth if you let them resolve. There is however a card in the deck which makes all of your decisions vastly much easier if it's permitted to live:

I mentioned before how the UG colour pairing sometimes feels awkward - well this is the card which brings everything together, allowing you to have both your counterspells AND your massive dudes. The trouble is, it can quite easily lose the game on the spot for you if you play it at the wrong time. In general, tapping out to play a Prophet against open red or black mana is incredibly dangerous. Lightning Strike or Hero's Downfall in response gives your opponent a window to resolve anything they want on the next turn, and the tempo swing from that is usually brutal. I would suggest that if you are sitting across from open mana in that way that you don't play out Prophet - either pass turn and keep your counterspell open until they tap out to play a threat, or play your Prognostic Sphinx or whatever else you were otherwise going to play and just hope that you can deal with your opponent's threat later on (or outrace them). You can feel godlike when you go off with Prophet - especially when you're drawing multiple cards with Bident and spending 10+ mana a turn cycle - but the downside of it is very real. Not only can it allow you to get severely punished by removal, but also it's a 2/3 for five and does literal nothing in multiples. Sticking to three or even two of these is definitely correct, because you can't base your entire deck around it.

Beyond that fundamentally tough choice, the other thing you need to figure out is the riddle of the sphinx. Scry 3 is NOT easy to get correct. I mean sometimes you hit 3 lands in a row and happily ship them, or you know that there's only one card in your deck that you need as an out so you ship anything that isn't that and it's simple. But in many game situations you hit a mix of decently good spells and you really have to think hard about the current game situation, what your opponent could play, what other cards in your deck you would prefer to draw and what order you want to put spells on top if you do want to keep multiples. It is VERY VERY easy to mess up the scry 3, it really is a riddle and something that you can only really work out with practice. I would suggest that unless you hit the stone nuts, you are usually best off putting only one of the three cards back on top if you expect to be able to attack with Sphinx on the next turn, because the value of digging constantly deeper in your deck is profound and while putting two moderately relevant spells back on top does often feel like the easiest answer, it's frequently going to be better to dig deeper for that perfect card. You should also bear in mind those situations when you do actually want to draw more land - either to be able to play out a spell and keep up dissipate, or because you're drawing multiple cards per turn with Bident. It's very easy to ship lands when you've already hit your five, but it's not always correct to do so.

Sideboarding is obviously going to depend heavily on which version of the deck you're playing with. With the standard version that I posted first, Sedge Scorpion is your biggest target to take out as it's only good against GR, mono green and aggro. Bident's are obviously bad against aggro (where you just don't have time to use it) and aren't great against GR, so they come out in those matchups, and two or so Sphinx can also come out against aggro, while voyaging satyrs are cut against GR due to all the burn. With the heavier blue version I posted, you'll usually take out Vaporkin against GR, but leave it in in all other matches although you will need to be mindful that it's terrible against Bow of Nylea in the mirror, so that is a high-priority counterspell target. Horizon Chimera can usually stay in because you can pump it out of easy burn range with Bow if you play smart. The other big option for cutting is Voyage's End which is simply awful against mono black (most creatures have ETB effects) and usually doesn't have enough good targets in the mirror.

As for what to bring in, you want all of your enchantment hate against the mono black decks, the mirror, mono green and heroic aggro decks. Don't bring it in against BWR though, as they don't usually play many relevant artifacts (Swan Song is decent there though). Curse of the swine comes in against GR, mono green and heroic aggro, but not mono black or the mirror (unless you're particularly worried about polukranos). Bow of Nylea is a huge trump in the mono black match, and has value pretty much everywhere else so I like bringing it in basically all the time, although only one or two copies in matchups where you expect to see a lot of enchantment hate (eg. the mirror) or in the faster matchups.

How to beat it

I've done a lot of talking this deck up so far, but it does of course have weaknesses. As I've said a few times, it doesn't have many good answers for resolved threats so it's easily punished if you can force it to tap out. Three mana threats are the best way to do this - Agent of the Fates and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver are particularly annoying to face down and can put the UG player on the back foot, causing them to play out something to try to deal with it and allowing you to resolve your bigger spell. Xenagos is also really annoying for the deck to deal with - if you can defend it from flyers with an arbor colossus or stormbreath dragon, it even has a decent chance of going ultimate. As a GR deck, keeping up Lightning Strike instead of playing a threat when your opponent has 4 open mana isn't a bad play, if they get greedy and go for the Prophet option you can punish them appropriately instead of tapping out into their counterspell. Also, as I've highlighted, both bow and bident do a huge amount of work for the UG deck - sideboard appropriately. Wild Celebrants is far and away the best option here if you're playing red, as it kills the weapon and gives you a tough to deal with 5/3 in the process. Arbor Colossus is also a good creature to keep in mind, it shuts down basically all of the UG deck's offense - barring Bow of Nylea - and is tough for them to meaningfully deal with.

The mono black deck doesn't have a great time against UG overall, but Abhorrent Overlord is one card that they really don't like to see. Try to land it at all costs, and this includes sandbagging it in hand until you can cast both it and a thoughtseize in the same turn if you aren't under immediate pressure. If the black deck is able to put up early pressure with Agent of the Fates, it can also potentially close the game out with Gray Merchants. Speaking of agent, the edict effect can be used to take out Prognostic Sphinx if you get lucky and it's their only creature on the field. Nighthowler is excellent to trigger Agent there, as it turns your Agent into a huge beater. Sphinx is one of your biggest issues here though, it's not a bad idea to save your Thoughtseize until the turn before your opponent is able to cast it - although that has the potential to walk into Dissolve, so you might have to fire it off earlier. You also want to attack the deck's artifacts.

Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed my Sphinx week contribution, this is a deck I'm really excited about and it shows off the power of the block's signature sphinx really well. I am nearing the end of my tour of the Theros block single set format - next week I'll be visiting mono black before rounding things off with a look at Reaper of the Wild's-based GB decks.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

The Anti-Mill is useful by MarcosPMA at Wed, 11/27/2013 - 16:55
MarcosPMA's picture

The Anti-Mill is useful against Mono Black and their Nighthowlers. Against a smart opponent it won't matter much, but your average opponent won't take Bow into the equation and you can make their seemingly good attack into a very bad one.

That's a fantastic tip. Even by Psychobabble at Wed, 11/27/2013 - 17:07
Psychobabble's picture

That's a fantastic tip. Even against an aware opponent, it still shrinks the guy which isn't irrelevant, and the ability is obscure enough that it could easily blow people out.

Wow, all FIVE of the card's abilities have some use. Crazy!

I'll have to agree, by MarcosPMA at Thu, 11/28/2013 - 22:39
MarcosPMA's picture

I'll have to agree, Prognostic Sphinx is definitely the best card in the deck. It dodges a lot of the removal in the format and against the unconditional removal you can always sandbag cards to negate that effect. Master of Waves is decidedly unimpressive I've found. It's okay against green, but a resolved Polukranos makes them weak, and black can always kill it. Of course, there isn't a better card you'd run over it atm.