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By: Tarmotog, Naoto Watabe
Nov 30 2011 9:23am
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Hi again! I'm back with yet another Classic article to advocate playing Islands in MTGO's most prestigious format.

From recent results, classic seems to be mainly dominated by workshop, dredge and variations of creature decks. Blue has pretty much lost its crown in classic. I am not a fan of that so I'm here to create awareness and appreciation for blue. (Well, I was actually asked by two people to write something on the deck I played. I could as well try to get more blue into the format while I'm at it.)

Blue in Classic vs Blue in Vintage

I am very sure that classic enthusiasts keep a close eye on vintage happenings as vintage is the closest reference point that we have. Unfortunately, classic is not at all close to vintage because of the clear distinction of power 9, consisting of black lotus, mox sapphire, jet, ruby, emerald and pearl, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk and Timetwister.

The power 9 is what secures the crown of blue in vintage. Before you would even consider the use of the free mana, the non-artifact spells in the p9 are blue and they are heralded as the power 9 (with Timetwister being an oddity in this age and should be replaced by Time Vault) for good reason. Ancestral recall and Time Walk in today's standards are effects that are worth 5 mana (see Jace's Ingenuity and Time Warp) and you get a large discount to play them at 1 and 2 mana respectively.

Both cards let blue players advance their gameplan and also provide blue with a more powerful endgame. Yawgmoth's Will into Tinker + Time Walk + Ancestral Recall is infinitely better than just Yawgmoth's Will into Tinker.

Another important factor contributing to blue's position is the presence of free mana via moxes and Black Lotus.
If you look at the decks that are performing in classic, dredge is not a deck that can utilize the mana, fish decks may or may not use moxes depending on their strategic standpoints and structures while dredge totally ignores them in most builds. However, ALL blue strategies in vintage are supported by free mana, having at least black lotus in them due to its sheer power. The reliance on moxes may vary but having them and not having them makes a very large difference.

Against shops, having mana on the board means that subsequent spells can be moved past sphere effects.
Right now, if a shops deck can play a sphere before each natural land drop you make, you will never be able to even cast a 1 mana spell. Coupled with this fact is the fact that blue decks in classic are rather light on land sources because of their reliance on brainstorm which they try to take advantage of. Being land light means that you can get into situations whereby you don't draw lands frequently so getting a high enough mana count is not easy. We also cannot forget that shops run wasteland and strip mine to push you out of being able to pay through spheres.
With moxes, blue decks get to cast better sideboard cards like Trygon Predator or the combo-freeing Teferi's Realm on turn two by disrupting the first sphere effect rather than naturally casting it on turn 3 and having to first deal with 2 sphere effects. Right now, the best answer would be to run Ancient Grudge but it boils back down to being able to even casting it (through spheres and having the right colored mana not attacked by Wasteland effects).

Blue's Position in Classic

For the bulk of people who are familiar with Vintage and blue's dominance in it, I'm sorry to disappoint but blue is not doing as well in Classic. The lack of the really powerful suite of blue spells and the mana artifacts really shows itself through the significant drop in relative numbers when compared to Vintage. I feel that blue should be represented at about a third of the three powers of Classic alongside workshop and dredge to make about 80% of the metagame but tournament results show otherwise. In fact, the results seem to suggest that piloting blue would give you a much lower odds of making the money. I definitely hope that that is not the case.

I personally feel that blue's main flagship being Oath of Druids seems wrong. I agree that Oath of Druids is a proper archetype but I dislike how it is dominantly the "blue deck" of Classic. I have played a myriad of blue decks and have managed to put up decent results but not many people like the "other blue decks" enough to push for a significant mass of blue decks.

I attribute the poor showing of blue to deck building choices and possibly playskill. This comes from a very biased view of course, coming from me because at different points in time, I believe in optimal card numbers. For example, I am against playing more than 2x Mental Misstep or even a copy of Flusterstorm in the maindeck in the current metagame so when I see blue decks with such configurations, I don't expect those decks to do well in the long run. That's how I arrive at "deck building choice" being one of the factors contributing to the success of blue decks.

Playskill is a different thing which is hard to gauge unless you are at a level where you have the technical prowess at the basic level and the tactical prowess at the next level. I often see players let games go out of their control because they don't appreciate how to give and take and want to win everything. When you win, you only have to win at the critical moments. You can afford to lose many of the non-critical junctions of the game. So the mentality should be to win big and lose small. Once more people grasp this concept, they can become better blue players.

To name a few examples, Carlos Romao was known to be unbeaten in the standard Psychatog mirror because he kept his counters for key spells when others spent them more openly. In one of the Pro Tours, Antoine Ruel declined to use a Force Spike on a Mana Leak (which would have countered it) and managed to counter a turn 3 Psychatog instead. If he had been afraid to have a dead Force Spike as many would have been, that play would never have been made.

In the same line, good blue players are able to identify which are the crucial battles to win. They can formulate a strategy that would allow them to win on certain fronts and they don't make plays that give the opponent the means to win. If you want to be a better blue player, you need to build up a greater appreciation for good plays and question plays you don't understand because playing optimally is not enough to make you good.

Deck Time
It is about time to get on with what I chose to pilot in Classic: Landstill. 

For those of you who are not familiar with landstill, I have written about the legacy version of it here a few months ago. In classic, landstill plays with roughly the same style but the environment in which it thrives is vastly different from that of legacy.
Landstill is a deck that uses lands as a mode of attack and sits behind Standstill as a card drawing engine which is mostly one sided because the landstill player can play under a Standstill while the opponent usually can't.
Its main strength comes from the fact that it runs more lands than other Classic decks which makes the deck naturally stronger against workshop. It also runs a full suite of Wasteland effects that is strong against the majority of the format because you hardly meet a mono colored basic land deck and most decks are light on lands.
It also has inbuilt resistance against creature based strategies by having Mishra's Factory as one of its win conditions which can become a 3/3, easily trumping or matching the industrial standard of bear sized creatures and x/3s. If you consider Dark Confidant, Snapcaster Mage, Zombie tokens, Bloodghast, Slash Panther, Phyrexian Revoker, Lodestone Golem
It's not going to be easy playing fair and trying to beat landstill.

Standstill seems to be growing in popularity in Vintage and I took the chance to try it out in Classic.
The main reason for choosing it over other blue strategies is that it is nicely positioned in the format by being strong against most Classic decks in a balanced way unlike most blue decks that have a much more powerful line of plays that make them stronger in a vacuum but more vulnerable to specific answers.

It is unfortunate that Landstill can only achieve that state of balance by giving up its inherent potential power level which is one of the main allures of the format. The deck does not have a quick way to end the game with the noticeable absence of the most powerful Tinker into Blightsteel Colossus and the Time Vault plus Voltaic Key combo. It is also the presence of these powerful spells that warp the format around them that creates value for a deck without these cards because you already create "dead" strategies on your opponent's side that are meant to deal with what they are most afraid of.

Just to elaborate, good blue decks are made up of the following:

-A card draw engine
-Strategy supporting countermagic
-A reliable win condition

As long as a blue deck has those components in a proper configuration, any blue deck immediately becomes viable. With that in mind, blue decks become easy to build. The only real difference between blue decks comes from the strategic strengths of the deck which tend to differ greatly for different metagames. For today's metagame, I believe that this deck is in a good position but I can't say the same for the future.

This deck is actually built from the sideboard first then followed by the maindeck.
I mentioned that I wanted a strategy that would beat the key matchups in the format. For that to materialize, I planned to simply work on an overkill sideboard that the maindeck would be able to capitalize on. The one thing I can't tell you is whether Snapcaster Mage was chosen first as the key engine of the strategy or whether Snapcaster Mage came after solidifying how I wanted to have the deck play out.

Landstill: The Red Side and the Workshop Plan

In the maindeck, red supports Lightning Bolt and Viashino Heretic.

Lightning Bolt is decent all round across the metagame. It is most effective with Snapcaster Mage against the green creature decks. Its next best application is against workshop creatures like Lodestone Golem and Phyrexian Revoker. It is also good against Jace, the Mind Sculptor and opposing Mishra's Workshops. You can also use it to hit your own creatures to get rid of Bridge from Below against dredge or you can also throw Lightning Bolt and flashback to close the game faster. In this iteration, it is chosen over Fire/Ice because of its stronger workshop and blue fighting capabilities.

Viashino Heretic is half-Trygon Predator for red. This is the main reason why I am running a Mountain in my maindeck, allowing me to have a Wasteland-proof setup against Workshops that moves past Thorn of Amethyst and Chalice of the Void at 1 and 2. It is also decent against creature decks and dredge decks by having a toughness of 3. A special thing to note is that you can actually beat a Blightsteel Colossus (the player actually) by activating its ability twice. If you have a Mishra's Factory to soak up some poison damage, you can actually win instead. It is also good against the blue decks and also the mirror where Mishra's Workshop becomes artifacts.

With 6 very effective pieces of hate against workshop combined with the basic plan of the maindeck, workshop becomes a very favorable matchup.

Shattering Spree is the main reason why I originally wanted to play just red blue. It is a very powerful spell that crashes straight through Chalice of the Void at 1 and can be played at the least amount of mana which allows it to be cast against sphere effects. It can also break down multiple artifacts and is possibly the most powerful anti shop spell that is only restricted by its mana.

Energy Flux is the most impactful against workshops if it lands. Once you manage to cast one, the whole board of the workshop player starts to collapse. Not to mention the ability from this deck to Wasteland out the lands that can pay for Energy Flux and leave the useless Mishra's Workshop behind. To be able to cast Energy Flux, it becomes important to be able to punch through sphere effects and that points back to how I build the deck in order to fulfill this condition.

Annul is a card to have some splash damage against Oath of Druids because I don't have that many outs against enchantments. Against workshop, it's a 1 mana hard counter. It gets around being able to pay for Spell Pierce and against workshop, it is always easier to counter a sphere than to work into destroying it because it takes more mana to do so.

Lastly, there is Rack and Ruin which is an instant answer to artifacts. This may seem puzzling because Shattering Spree could be said to be much better but its inclusion is mainly there to allow the deck to combat blue decks that have artifacts. The instant characteristic becomes important because they can simply resolve a Tinker or cast both parts of the Time VaultVoltaic Key combo to steal the game.

I usually take out 2x Gush, 2x Mental Misstep, 1x Echoing Truth and 1xNihil Spellbomb for the 6 workshop hate cards and this configuration is very effective against non-welder versions of workshop.

For Goblin Welder versions, Mental Misstep and Nihil Spellbomb are less dead so you might want to remove 2 Force of Will and 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor instead.

Landstill: The Black Side and the Dredge Plan

The two Underground Sea supports the black mana requirements of the deck which is there to allow the deck to combat graveyard strategies.
In the maindeck, Nihil Spellbomb is a great choice because it does not compromise on the basic strategy of the deck by not having to lose a card.
By being there, there is a slight edge against blue decks from being able to steal away Yawgmoth's Will and Snapcaster Mage targets as well as with Crucible of Worlds. It does help slightly against dredge but you need to draw it naturally due to the lack of tutors and the deck is not able to capitalize on just a little more time gained as it does not have the raw power to close the game fast without the game winning combos.

In the sideboard, black contributes to fighting dredge by having 4 Leyline of the Void, 3 Surgical Extraction and 1 Yixlid Jailer. The inclusion of black mana allows the deck to run better graveyard hate. Tormod's Crypt and Relic of Progenitus don't really have the ability to lock up games by their own going into the long game.

Leyline of the Void is the undisputable best answer against dredge. If you can keep one in play by having a wall of countermagic, it will be very difficult to lose. However, dredge has answered this by having Wispmare as its main repertoire of sideboard tools. You will need to match each Wispmare with a Force of Will or a Mana Drain and that may not always happen. The best situation is when you hit multiple in your opening hand, at which point the dredge matchup tremendously swings in your favor. The worst situation is when you can't mulligan into them and you don't get any hate at 5 cards at which point you need to make a call as to whether or not you have the tools to win the game. Unfortunately, just drawing into hate is never going to get you there and you cannot afford to lose too many cards from the start. The good thing is that the deck has multiple angles of attack against dredge such as using Wasteland to slow them down or to have Mishra's Factory to hold the front to buy some time. In any case, you always want to have some answers in your draws.

Surgical Extraction is a very powerful hate to go along with Snapcaster Mage. Unfortunately, there are many key cards you want to remove from dredge. The top targets are: Bloodghast, Bridge from Below as the top two priority followed by Narcomoeba in third. If you hit all 3 of them, dredge would not have enough power to win the game. There is some conflict of interest when it comes to Bridge from Below because you can actually get rid of them without having to use Surgical Extraction. It becomes complicated as you try to plan around nullifying it manually without Surgical Extraction. You usually get to blank the effects of (Dread Returns) and Cabal Therapy but this play is very mana intensive.

Yixlid Jailer is there to serve as a diverse sideboard threat. It attacks dredge from a different dimension which dredge cannot deal with using Wispmare or Nature's Claim. Diversifying sideboard answers makes it difficult for dredge to answer properly. I am considering swapping one Surgical Extraction for a second Yixlid Jailer.

Against dredge, I take out 2 Spell Snare, 3 Standstill, 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 1 Viashino Heretic and 1 Mana Drain for the 8 hate cards.

Landstill: The Blue Base / Maindeck

The most important part of the deck is actually its counter suite. If the counter suite is ineffective, Landstill as a deck cannot function because it would be "leaking" too many spells. For a deck that cannot end the game quickly, it becomes very important that the flow of the game is under control as much as possible.

Force of Will is, needless to say, the core of every Classic blue control deck. It is a very powerful spell that is inherently bad for the blue player because you are trading two cards for one. Most blue players fail to acknowledge this fact, especially against fair decks, and they end up losing more than they would otherwise by removing them.  

The hard part is what comes next.
Looking at the candidates for blue control spells, we have the following:
Mental Misstep, Spell Pierce, Spell Snare, Mana Drain, Pyroblast/Red Elemental Blast, Flusterstorm and Mindbreak Trap.

For players who keep don't already keep themselves updated with Vintage happenings, Vintage blue trends can be described as 4x Mental Misstep, some Flusterstorm and Mindbreak Trap being the norm.

Unfortunately, Classic is far from being able to take in that trend successfully or rather, I would recommend against following them if you want to be effective in the format. Ultimately, that configuration is only good against blue if even so.

Mental Misstep as a 4 of is important in Vintage because of Ancestral Recall which is a core spell you want to Mental Misstep and you want to have Mental Misstep for opposing Mental Missteps. This key fixture is what we don't have in Classic and is the main reason why I advocate not playing the full playset. I like 2 Mental Missteps because it gives an edge against the mirror and it is good against some answers that dredge runs like Chain of Vapor, Nature's Claim, Pithing Needle etc. However, it fails to be good against green decks and more importantly, workshop decks with only Sol Ring as a counterable target unless they are running Goblin Welders. Having 2 as Force of Will fodder is still acceptable. Having a playset of dead cards is as good as giving up games.

Flusterstorm's value in Vintage is greatly increased with all the action from Mental Misstep and Ancestral Recall. However, it is largely dead against Workshop and creature decks which make up a large percentage of the Classic metagame. Vintage players can afford to play anti-blue spells with blue taking up more than half the metagame but we can't if we want to be successful.

Mindbreak Trap is a card that joins in the above interaction and is also more active due to the presence of Moxen. In Classic, it is not impossible but the odds of your opponent chaining up multiple spells is much less. This usually happens when the opponent casts an artifact, Tinker and has Force of Will for your Force of Will or if your opponent is playing a Gush based deck or if your opponent is running Snapcaster Mage. I wouldn't play it in the maindeck at all although I would consider it in the sideboard.

I am playing 4x Mana Drain, 2x Mental Misstep, 2x Spell Pierce, 2x Spell Snare.

The number of Mana Drains in a deck is an indication as to how the blue player wants to play.
4x Mana Drain means that the player wants to beat Workshops and Oath of Druids.
3x Mana Drain means that the player wants to power out planeswalkers. Oath of Druids/Tezzeret the Seeker builds run well with this number.
2x Mana Drain means that the player wants some secondary protection.

I am an advocate for Spell Pierce in the format as it is good against blue, workshops (partially) and dredge as well. It is bad against outliers and creature decks but it is as good as it gets. I originally ran 3 but testing showed that it would be better to have diversified answers instead.

I also have Spell Snare which is good against a different subset of spells. It is good against Mana Drain, Dark Confidant, green white bears, Oath of Druids, the 2 casting cost spheres and Snapcaster Mage. It is only dead against dredge which doesn't really mean much since dredge is mostly uncounterable anyway. Running it makes the deck weaker to Chalice of the Void at 1 and Mental Misstep but the extra strength it provides makes the deck more all-rounded and thus more suited to be in a deck that wants to beat every other deck.

Next is the card advantage engine in the form of 3x Standstill and 4x Snapcaster Mage. As much as Standstill sculpts the entire gameplan of the deck, running 4 is dangerous as too many in hand creates deadness which is the bane of the deck. Snapcaster Mage is a nice complement to the deck by having flash and coming down on the turn before Standstill is cast or sneaking in when Standstill breaks. It also works well with the length of games that the deck wants to push for.

4x Brainstorm is hard to say no to, given that it has so much synergy with the deck and allows you to create value out of dead spells.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a unique win condition + draw engine which is immediately protected by having Mishra's Workshop, Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolts in the maindeck. The right number is either 2 or 3 because Jace, the Mind Sculptor is very that effective in the format of creatures, spheres and is very bad in multiples. I chose 2 because I find that he does not die easily in this deck and I don't want to make him the core of the deck in a format where he does not perform optimally against half the field. Jace, the Mind Sculptor tends to be overplayed because people don't understand what type of decks he fits well into. Oath of Druids is probably the worst blue deck to have Jace, the Mind Sculptor as a core engine and he is much better in decks that can naturally protect him by running cards like Dark Confidant where 3 is a reasonable number due to the tremendous synergy he provides.

The singleton Crucible of Worlds allows the deck to Wasteland lock out an opponent or just run out fetchlands. It used to be a 2x but there are many instances whereby the second copy becomes dead and there is no way to turn it into useful cards. It's not like I have to rely on it for value.

2x Gush is a powerful edge against blue decks and creates additional value for Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Crucible of Worlds (for turning fetched islands into Brainstorm food to be fetched out again) and Library of Alexandria (by allowing the hand size to jump by 3 if resolved).The deck obviously can't run a full playset because of the large number of non-Islands but running none makes it difficult to fight Gush based decks that have the advantage of being able to have a large handsize to fight counter wars. Having Gush is the main mode of trump against blue decks.

The last two nonlands are the 1x Echoing Truth and the 1x Sol Ring.

Echoing Truth is a nice answer to uncountered threats and is also exceptional against dredge and its zombie tokens. It also gains additional value against Phyrexian Metamorph. Although the deck does not run any tutors, having 1 can really save your life sometimes.

If you notice, I have consciously moved out of running artifacts in order to gain some edge against Ancient Grudge in some blue builds and also against Null Rods. Sol Ring is the only mana artifact I allow myself to play to boost an early Jace, the Mind Sculptor and a quick hardcast Leyline of the Void. It creates value against Spell Pierce and with Mishra's Factory which can be quite mana intensive. By running minimal artifacts, the deck becomes is less susceptible to one of the strategies to beat blue decks which is to attack its artifact base.

Landstill: The Mana Base

2x Island and 1x Mountain allow the deck to survive an onslaught of Wastelands aimed at the mana base. Optimally, there should be 4 basic lands to support Jace, the Mind Sculptor but I am banking on being able to have 3 basics + 1 nonbasic in such a situation.

4x Scalding Tarn, 4x Volcanic Island and 2x Underground Sea support the core color requirements of the deck as described above.

1x Strip Mine and 4x Wasteland as the full land destruction package is one of the key weapons of the deck. With the format almost never relying on basic lands out of the blue creature decks, having a full suite gives the deck a way to force a concession.

4x Mishra's Factory creates the advantage to be able to move under a Standstill and also being able to handle troublesome matchups.

1x Library of Alexandria and 1x Riptide Laboratory is the current novelty configuration to gain an advantage over the field as a whole. Library of Alexandria
is one of the more powerful lands in the deck. It creates a tradeoff by being strong against blue but weaker against non-blue decks. Riptide Laboratory is the other end of the equation, allowing the deck to be stronger against non-blue decks by allowing the deck to reuse key spells but is naturally bad against Standstill.

Evaluation of Landstill

Over the course of 2 DEs running this particular version, I managed to go 4-0 in one and 3-1 in the next, losing to the mirror that plays multiple Library of Alexandria. I played against a total of 2 landstill mirrors, 1 oath, 2 workshops, 2 dredge and 1 outlier deck. Workshop is a very strong matchup post sideboard but dredge is still hard to beat even with 8 pieces of hate in its face. I will try to change my hate configuration to improve its efficiency. The main strength of the deck comes from the deck's combined strength of the maindeck and the sideboard strategy to give it a clear edge against the key decks in the format.

I personally like that it beats shops which is not something I get to say often with blue decks. Its strategy as a whole is very interesting but the deck is weak to quick game ending plays that the more traditional blue decks wield. Standstill against non landstill blue decks can be quite a powerhouse when you get to draw 3 cards for 2 mana, especially when you can play under it while they can't. However, the deck is slow and has trouble closing up games fast which means that once you lose control over the game, the game is pretty much over at that point. Tinker decks can make quick comebacks that only need to be minimally protected for a short window and that allows them to steal games out of nowhere. In short, you are basically trading power for consistency. I like how it is positioned in the format and would continue to explore it for now until blue decks become more rampant to allow me to switch gears into playing more powerful effects which are currently quite heavily guarded against.

I will advocate playing blue in Classic and I hope blue decks start to pick up the pace to become a more significant player in the Classic metagame. I don't think blue would lose its place with the introduction of the Masques block and Tangle Wire if you are well prepared to face workshop decks. Time would prove me wrong but I want to see the new age for myself before I make more comments. If Tangle Wire would really pose that big a threat, I could just run even more hate. If workshops become really dominant, I could just play a deck that beats it flat and I would still be able to win with a positive record so don't lose hope and just play the most powerful color in Magic.


As an ex-Vintage player, by Westane at Wed, 11/30/2011 - 13:21
Westane's picture

As an ex-Vintage player, articles like these make me want to break the bank on a set of classic staples... A full set of FoW, Duals, Wastelands, the restricted list, and othe odds and ends is... what... about $1200? Pfft, who needs furniture anyway...

One either likes Classic and by MMogg at Fri, 12/02/2011 - 08:45
MMogg's picture

One either likes Classic and plays, or doesn't. It isn't just "I don't have Forces, I won't play because I can't play blue". Getting into Classic takes a lot of grit. Earning through DEs and 2-mans is a good way to accumulate a collection IF you're a good enough player. Being a part of a Classic-focused clan is also nice as once you build relationships, very often you can borrow cards to fill out decks. Once you understand the format, you can build decks that penetrate the meta's weak points. Then once you're "into" Classic, you start watching the market and buying and selling to help your collection grow, especially if you don't play other formats.

The thing I like, which others like Naoto probably don't, is that blue ISN'T king in Classic. It's good and viable, but so are Dredge and Shops. I like how it isn't a "play blue or go home" format. It makes it a heck of a lot easier for new players to break in.

@Naoto, awesome work here. =)