Wielding Discard Effectively

It’s about as iconic as “Bolt the Bird.”

Turn 1, Thoughtseize

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It’s the perfect turn 1 play for G/B decks. Control decks have their Serum Visions, Chord decks have their Birds of Paradise, and G/B decks have Thoughtseize. At the cheap cost of one mana and two life, you get to look at your opponent’s hand and take any non-land spell. The ability to trade one-for-one is exactly the kind of interaction many decks are looking for. What’s even better about discard spells compared to most one-for-ones is that it trades as early as turn 1 and can take spells that would otherwise be difficult for you to deal with, breaking the color pie philosophy. For example: while B/R decks struggle severely against enchantment card types, discard spells provide the perfect solution.

Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are the most popular discard spells because they hit the largest portion of the cards played in Modern. When sequencing these two spells, it’s important to start with IoK (Inquisition of Kozilek) since it has more narrow applications. Leading with Thoughtseize could put you in the awkward position of taking the only spell IoK could have taken. A perfect example of this would be if you Thoughtseize against Tron and see Expedition Map, two Tron Lands, two Forests, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and a Karn Liberated. You want to take the Map to keep them off Tron but that now means IoK is dead in hand. By leading on IoK, you’ll increase the spell’s impact in the game.

Alongside the one-for-one trade, you also have the ability to poke holes in your opponent’s hand. If you take their only threat, you may have bought enough time to win the game yourself. Against Elves for example, you can take them off their one payoff, like an Archdruid or Ezuri, and leave them with a bunch of 1/1 Elves that aren’t winning the game on their own. If you take your opponent’s one removal spell, you’re eliminating the only way they can deal with your creatures. If your opponent has two Tarmogoyfs and a Terminate in hand, take the Terminate. The key to poking holes in your opponents hand is ignoring  redundancy when possible and taking the card that sticks out the most.

Poking a hole in their hand could also mean taking them off curve. Perhaps a Birds of Paradise, while light on lands, was meant to curve into a number of different three drops like Knight of the Reliquary. By taking the Birds of Paradise and leaving them with no play on either turn one or turn two, you’ve gained a significant amount of tempo advantage.

While taking a card from your opponent is great, the power behind discard spells are actually two-fold: on one hand you get to take a card from your opponent and on the other hand you get the information of everything else you didn’t take. The information is actually where most of the power lies in these spells. Yes, you get to take the best card in your opponent’s hand, but “best card” is completely subjective depending on what’s in yours.

Like a chess master you can begin to line up the next three to four turns and predict exactly how they are going to unfold. You can sequence your threats against your opponent’s interaction and line up interactive pieces against your opponent’s threats. The information can be lethal. With discard spells it’s very important to think turns ahead of where you are now. Having this kind of foresight can help you navigate the game in a way that benefits you the most.

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Remember that there’s no need to take what looks the scariest at face value or what your opponent thinks is the best card. If it’s something you already have an answer to, you can easily ignore it and utilize your discard elsewhere. In an earlier example I used Birds of Paradise and Knight of the Reliquary as a way to illustrate poking holes in your opponent’s curve. In general, your opponent may value Knight of the Reliquary much higher than Birds of Paradise. If you can afford to take advantage of the tempo gained by leaving your opponent without a turn one or two play, then there’s no reason to take the Knight. There’s a chance you’ll be able to get down multiple threats before the Knight can even be cast. If you had taken the Knight, simply because it’s the “scariest” card, then you will have allowed your opponent to be mana efficient in their early turns. Sequences like this can win you many games, all based on the information given to you through discard.

To demonstrate the power of turn one discard, here’s a scenario from a game I played against a Ponza (land destruction) deck.

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My options here are between two pieces of ramp and two pieces of land destruction. I can’t take the Chandra because her CMC is greater than three. My opponent has a pretty redundant hand that lines up nicely against discard.

Before I make my decision I need to consult my hand. I have two interactive spells and a pretty good clock in Tarmogoyf. Because G/B decks don’t interact with instants and sorceries as well as they do permanents, I decide I’m going to take the Stone Rain. Even though Molten Rain represents two damage, it’s also harder to cast. Stone Rain can be cast with one more land regardless of what it is while Molten Rain requires a specific draw. Before my opponent takes their first turn, I’m already picturing how turns one through three are going to happen. In my head, the game continues like this:

(Opp.) Turn 1: Forest, Utopia Sprawl on Forest

(Me) Turn 2: Forest, Abrupt Decay the Sprawl

(Opp.) Turn 2: Foothills, Birds of Paradise

(Me) Turn 3: Catacombs into Overgrown Tomb, Liliana minus to edict Bird

My opponent will likely play Sprawl turn one because it’s the more reliable piece of ramp against a deck with Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt in it. The reason for playing Liliana on turn three instead of Goyf is to not only continue attacking my opponent’s mana sources but to also ensure I can play all the cards in my hand. If they do find the mana for Molten Rain, I will still be capable of casting Tarmogoyf on turn four, whereas I may not be able to cast the Liliana. Chandra is also a very scary threat and I want to pressure my opponent’s hand before they are able to cast her.

By putting myself in my opponent’s shoes, I can play out the game from their perspective, get inside their head, and use it to my own advantage. The game jumps tremendously in my favor when I get to have all the information, and take a card from my opponent, before my opponent even gets a turn. Much of the power behind these spells is having an understanding of what your opponent is trying to do and what their game-plan is, so you can determine how best to stop it. Even if the line of play is obviously bad, it’s a good exercise to play it out in your head anyways. Doing so will help you evaluate what plays are good and which are non-optimal.

The game draws on exactly the way I wanted to. My opponent eventually found the red source for Molten Rain, but my Liliana and Tarmogoyf were already in play. My opponent then found a Tireless Tracker but my Liliana had recouped enough loyalty to dispatch it. My Tarmogoyf runs away with the win and my opponent never gets the chance to cast their Chandra.

There is a lot of information to digest from this turn one play and how it affected the rest of the game, but there’s no doubt in my mind I won because of it. One of the main reasons I kept my hand was for Abrupt Decay. It’s one of the best ways I can deal with Blood Moon. Upon looking at my opponent’s hand and seeing that they didn’t have one, I knew I could put it to use elsewhere. So not only did I get the information of what was presently in hand, but also of what wasn’t there and I didn’t have to play around.

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“Duress” by Steve Belledin

It’s almost always appropriate to play discard turn one, but there can be situations where this is not always the best time to use it.

Against decks with a lot of cantrips (cards that replace themselves like Serum Visions or Street Wraith), discard doesn’t really give you the information you’ll need to navigate the game beneficially. The cantrips represent cards that you don’t know about, making them hard to evaluate. This typically makes them bad takes and lends more value to discard spells after the cantrips are played.

When playing against Storm, their turn one will almost always be a cantrip. If you see a hand full of Serum Visions and Sleight of Hands, you’re not getting the whole picture. You’d much rather take the Pieces of the Puzzle, Gifts Ungiven, or Goblin Electromancer that they draw off the cantrip. The only time a cantrip can look like a juicy target on turn one, is when the opponent is light on lands and is relying on the cantrip to dig for more. Now don’t misunderstand me, if you have a discard spell into a threat against Storm, this is most likely the best line to take, but lets look at a scenario where we don’t have a turn two threat against Storm. Upon looking at this hand, ask yourself what you would do turn one?

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Like an impulsive reflex, many players will answer with Blooming Marsh and IoK turn one. But why? What’s driving a player to take this line?

The answer, is most likely habit. Much like the Chord decks play their Birds, and the Storm player plays their Serum Visions, it’s the best turn one play for the deck. What else are you doing on turn one anyway? The upside of turn one discard is fantastic, but we should also ask ourselves what the benefits of holding onto them are.

With this hand, on the play against Storm, I’m much more inclined to play the tap land on turn one so I can play two discard spells on turn two. I can benefit more from them after my opponent plays their turn one Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions. There’s also the potential for future draws to take into account. What if I draw a Tarmogoyf?

Getting down a threat early against Storm is incredibly important to win the game. If I do draw a Tarmogoyf after playing the tap land turn one, I can then deploy it, and have multiple options available to me on turn three. If they played an Electromancer, I can IoK and then Abrupt Decay it or Liliana edict. If they simply passed, and are possibly representing Remand, I can first cast my IoK to see how I need to sequence the rest of my spells.

If we instead take the line of turn one discard and tap land on a subsequent turn, we’re playing a bit shortsighted. If we then draw a Tarmogoyf, decide to play it, and delay the tap land until turn three, your options become very limited. Remand becomes effective against your discard with only one black source, Liliana isn’t castable, and Abrupt Decay may not have a target that turn. If we hold the Tarmogoyf for turn 3 by playing the tap land and second discard spell turn two, we’ll have taken a turn off our clock. Allowing the Storm deck one more turn could mean the difference between a win and a loss.

While turn one discard may certainly feel like the best/only option with this opening hand, you can see the possible trickle of consequences from doing so. Your opponent isn’t going off turns one or two, so there’s no rush. Typically holding onto discard until the turn before a combo player is looking to go off can be the best time to cast it. They’ve done all the leg work to set up for next turn and now you can set them back efficiently. Again, I’m not saying it’s always beneficial to hold your discard back, most of the time it’s not, but it is important to recognize the situations where it is.

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“Collective Brutality” by Johann Bodin

These awkward scenarios with tap lands can put you in a position where you have to choose between a discard spell on turn one or a threat on turn two. Is it worth it to play a discard spell on turn one if it means losing your second turn?

While it can be difficult to evaluate the loss of value your discard spells will have the longer you hold onto them, skipping your second turn is a hard sell. There’s very little any deck can do on turn one that you would’ve wanted to take with discard anyways.

Obviously you can feel a bit punished if your opponent then goes turn one Expedition Map off Urza’s Mine, but if my opponent’s deck is unknown, I’m prioritizing a Dark Confidant on turn two over my IoK turn one. IoK could very well have the same value on turn three that it would’ve had on turn one whereas skipping my second turn and delaying the Confidant is a measurable loss of one extra card drawn and two points of damage at my opponent.

A hand with multiple fetches and shock lands can also put you in a tough spot where you have to decide between going to 15 life on turn one or 18 life on turn two with Thougthseize. Two life doesn’t always matter in the long run, but would Thougthseize be playable if it instead read, “Lose 5 life?” Probably not.

This is another scenario where it can be okay to skip the first turn by fetching on the opponent’s end step or playing a shock land tapped to save some life and gain some information from the opponent’s turn one play. Again, the loss of value for not having played Thoughtseize turn one is hard to evaluate, but two to three additional life saved for not playing it can make a big difference in some matches.

Many of these lines are of course dependent on your opening hand and the match-up. Sometimes you have to go to 15 on turn one, or sometimes you have to risk losing your second turn. The point is to learn to be patient; ask yourself if turn one discard is actually the best line to take and not simply the one that’s obviously available to you.

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“Inquisition of Kozilek” by Tomasz Jedruszek

Sometimes discard spells can seem useless when you’re top decking late into the game. Maybe your opponent is empty handed, or you desperately needed something that affected the board state instead. This is part of the downside of running discard spells and is the reason decks aren’t loading up on 12 different discard effects. We want to play enough to see them early in the game, but not so many that we are constantly drawing them when they don’t matter. Typically you’ll see these numbers range from four to seven discard effects.

There are some cases though, where late game discard can still be advantageous, so long as you know how to use it. When you are playing against a control deck, you can use a discard spell to clear the way for a threat.

Let’s say your only card in hand is a fetch-land you’ve been holding onto just in case you draw a Tireless Tracker, and your control opponent has two to three cards in hand. You draw Thoughtseize. Do you play it?

You may think that it’s a simple one-for-one trade and a way to ensure they don’t pull too far ahead on cards. You may also think, “What else am I doing this turn?” so you go ahead and cast it. They Cryptic Command in response. Counter-Draw.

Was this worth it?

Not really.

They cycled a counterspell, essentially tapping themselves out, but you couldn’t do anything to take advantage of that. They keep the same amount of cards in hand, and you are down another card for no value.

Lets say they instead reveal two lands and an Opt.

Now was it worth it?

Again, not really.

You see that your opponent is out of gas and the coast is clear, but you have no follow-up to take advantage of it. As soon as your opponent goes to draw for their turn, your perfect information is wasted.

The impulse to cast it can be strong, but by doing so you’ve wasted its potential for future use. Remember this isn’t a Serum Visions or Birds of Paradise, the card gains value if you can choose the right moment to cast it.

Now let’s say you instead wait another turn and voilà, you draw Tireless Tracker. Now you can lead on Thoughtseize to clear the way for your threat and the potential 2 clues with your fetch-land. Without the Thoughtseize, you’d be casting Tracker blindly and praying it resolves instead of knowing it will resolve.

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“Mind Rot” by Steve Luke

Discard is one the most powerful tools our decks can utilize. Trading one-for-one early in the game and gathering information to help guide our future plays is how many matches can be won. Practice playing out your hand before the game begins to determine what the best line is, taking into account all possible draws and sequences. Remember that while turn one discard is incredibly powerful, it may not always be the best line to take.

Study your opponent’s decks. Your discard isn’t powerful if you don’t know what your opponent is trying to do, and don’t know what to take. Learn to put yourself in their shoes and become the Affinity player, the Storm player, or the Tron player, to know how they plan to defeat you and how you can best stop it.

Finally, learn to have patience. Whether this means waiting until turn two or three when appropriate or holding onto discard to force threats through countermagic. Don’t be impulsive or habitual. If you can properly determine the correct moment for execution, at the cost of one black mana, you can tip the scales in you favor.

Strategy & Sideboard Guide: Humans

Who would have thought that in a multiverse filled with powerful planeswalkers, formidable beasts, and Eldrazi titans, it would be lowly humans that we would come to fear among the most?

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There are many tribes in Magic; Elves, Goblins, Spirits, Merfolk, Zombies…the list goes on and on. Most rely on cards that synergize within a specific tribe. These cards tend to be narrow and weak on their own, but can be powerhouses when surrounded by those of the same creature type.

“Lords” can be one example of these cards. Lords are creatures that supply a static effect that usually involves giving +1/+1 to all other creatures of the same type. Examples of these lords could be Death Baron, Knight Exemplar, Elvish Archdruid, and Lord of the Unreal. Most of the popular tribes in Modern rely on these Lords to hasten their clock.  

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The Humans deck has very little synergy, making for an odd design and deviating from the typical tribal formula. The deck even opts out of playing its own lord, Mayor of Avabruck, and yet remains aggressive with cards like Mantis Rider, Kessig Malcontents, and Champion of the Parish which can become a 6/6 fairly easily. Among other tribes you’ll often see engine pieces and payoffs that heavily depend on the tribe’s presence like Heritage Druid, Goblin Grenade, and Silvergill Adept. If you look at Merfolk decks, you’ll notice that there are around 16 cards that have “Merfolk” in their text box. If you count Spreading Seas as an integral piece of the deck’s synergy, then that would mean half of the non-land cards in the deck are reliant on each other. The Elf deck is similar with around 16-20 cards referring to “Elves” in their text box and Spirits have 12-16. The Humans deck on the other hand only has 8-9 of these cards, half of most other tribes. What makes the deck even more unique beyond its minimal tribal synergies are the disruptive elements they bring to the table.

With so many creatures in tribal decks, there is typically little to no room for cards that can interact with an opponent. They sacrifice interaction for the ability to be fast and take advantage of tribal synergies. Most of the decks may only contain a playset of removal like Path to Exile or Lightning Bolt and have 1 or 2 creatures that interact with the opponent like Mausoleum Wanderer or Harbinger of Tides.

The Humans deck on the other hand is extremely disruptive without even playing one interactive non-creature spell. Since it doesn’t need to worry about non-creature spells, it gets to play powerful mana fixing lands like Ancient Ziggurat, Unclaimed Territory, and Cavern of Souls to support the best humans Magic has to offer spanning over all five colors. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben punishes spell heavy decks, Kitesaile Freebooter + Meddling Mage can make your hands worthless while paralyzing combo decks reliant on 1-2 specific cards, and Reflector Mage can be miserable to play against if you yourself are playing a creature deck. These disruptive elements, backed up by powerful payoffs, have been the driving point for the deck’s success.

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“Gather the Townsfolk” by Dan Scott

Typically, removal heavy decks like Jund, Abzan, Jeskai Control, and Mardu Pyromancer, have a pretty favorable match-up against creature heavy decks like Death and Taxes or Counters Company. For Rock decks in specific, all of our removal spells line up very nicely and our threats are much larger than any of theirs. Meddling Mage can’t meddle very effectively since our removal options are so diverse, Freebooter creates a house of cards that can come crashing down with one removal spell, and without cards like Collected Company, it can be very hard to rebuild after a sweeper. Yet, in the face of all this, it can still be a very difficult match-up. Why is that?

Well, Thalia is still very good against us. We’re not as spell heavy as Jeskai Control but it’s hard to argue that Thalia is not impactful when 1/3 of our deck is non-creature spells. In the same way Affinity can steal games through speed, Human decks trade card advantage spells like Collected Company for the ability to play out their hand faster with Aether Vial to overwhelm their opponent. When played on turn 1, Aether Vial basically acts as a mana dork going into turn 2, a mana dork we can’t kill. On turn 3, they’ll have access to 5 mana (3 lands + 2CMC spell off Vial), 6 if they Vialed in a Noble Hierarch on turn 2. A very reasonable start from Humans can go like this:

Turn 1: Land, Aether Vial

Turn 2:  Land, Vial in Champion of the Parish, Cast Kitesail Freebooter

Turn 3: Land, Cast Mantis Rider, Vial in Thalia’s Lieutenant, swing for 11 damage

This is not some absurd draw for this deck, this is just another regular Humans start. Not only did they attack for 11 damage, but they also got to disrupt us with Freebooter. I bet you were really hoping to cast that Anger of the Gods, weren’t you?

Aether Vial’s ability to flood the battlefield with threats and disruption puts a lot of stress on our removal. The speed at which the deck operates doesn’t give us much time to climb out of the hole it puts us in.

Aether Vial also has a surprise factor that comes along with it. The deck can keep you off-balance by Vialing in Thalia’s Lieutenant during combat, Freebooters during your draw step, and threats on your end step. It can make it difficult to know what the best play is when Aether Vial represents so many variables. Studying the Humans deck and knowing all the different possibilities for each counter on Vial can help you navigate these situations.

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“Aether Vial” by Karl Kopinski

As with most matches in Modern, many of the outcomes are dictated by what happens turns 1-4. Humans certainly abide by this rule. Our early interaction is incredibly important, especially discard spells since they lose most of their value in the mid-late game. One mana removal spells are at a premium here, more so than most matches. Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and Path to Exile are some of the more important pieces you’ll need in your opening hand. Opening hands that have a couple Tarmogoyfs, a Liliana, and some lands just won’t cut it. You have to mulligan aggressively into interaction or risk getting ran over.

Alongside removal, Tarmogoyf can still be a nice card to have in your opening hand since it stonewalls most attacks that can be made on the ground. For Abzan, Lingering Souls is a great way to buy yourself a lot of time to stabilize.

When examining a battlefield looking to remove a threat, it can be difficult to know what to kill when none of the cards lean on each other for strength. Against Elves, this is a pretty simple exercise since the deck hinges on one or two cards like Elvish Archdruid or Ezuri, Renegade Leader. Against Humans though, it’s a bit more complicated. Do you take out the Freebooter with another removal spell under it? The Thalia that is slowing you down? The Mantis Rider that’s been beating you to a pulp the past two turns? In my experience, the game favors our deck in the long run. This means you should try to manage their larger threats before anything else to preserve your life total. If you can keep your opponent off Mantis Riders, Lieutenants, and large Champion of the Parishes you’ll most likely find enough time to pull ahead.

As far as discard is concerned, it will almost always depend on what you’re looking at and what you have in hand. There is no single-handed “gotcha” card you can take from them. The difference between taking a piece of disruption, a threat, or a Vial to fight the deck at a fair pace, can depend entirely on what interaction you have in your hand and your angle of attack.

Now that we know a little bit about the Humans deck, let’s look at how we can sideboard to help shore up the match, starting with this Jund list that got first place at SCG Regionals in New York by Brad Schott.

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Out:

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In:

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The Thoughtseizes come out here because the discard loses a lot of value after a few short turns and Inquisition of Kozilek can claim anything Thoughtseize can anyways. The other cut is going to be Dark Confidant. He gets easily outclassed on the ground and the life loss can end up being detrimental when the Humans deck has an aggressive start.

Coming in we have our sweeper of choice with Anger of the Gods and all the removal we can get our hands on. Humans has over thirty-five creatures in it so any removal is welcome. Many of the creatures in the Humans deck are small, small enough to die to Collective Brutality, but they almost never stay that way. If you can prioritize the more situational removal like Bolt and Brutality early, you can mitigate their inefficiency later.

I’ve also switched out one Bloodbraid Elf with the Kalitas since he can be very good at stabilizing and getting more value out of your removal. You could also make the argument that Kitchen Finks could come in to help stabilize but I don’t think it’s needed as much.

Next let’s look at an Abzan list that got first place at SCG Regionals Nashville in the hands of Russel Lewis.

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Out:

abzan out

In:

abzan in

Again we’re going to reduce the amount of discard we have because of its linear loss of value as the game goes on and again we are cutting the Dark Confidants.

Coming in we have more one-for-one removal and two sweepers with Languish and Damnation.

One thing I really like about this list is the inclusion of Stirring Wildwood. Abzan is already much better at stabilizing against flying threats because of Lingering Souls but Stirring Wildwood does an excellent job of actually making profitable blocks against Mantis Rider and Freebooters.

Lastly, lets look at a G/B Rock list that 5-0’d an online league by user Cantergiani.

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OUT:

gbout

IN:

gbin

With no Dark Confidants, the only cuts we’re looking at making are with the discard package.

Funeral Charm may have some utility as another piece of turn one interaction but I believe it is too narrow and loses too much value over the course of the game. G/B doesn’t have access to multiple turn one removal spells like Jund and Abzan, but I don’t believe Charm is the answer to fill that gap.

Coming in again we have more one-for-one removal and two Languishes.

You could make an argument for the third Collective Brutality but seeing as it’s already narrow removal for the match, I’m not sure what could be cut beyond the second Liliana the Last Hope if you really wanted to bring it in.

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“Kessig Malcontents” by John Stanko

Coming out of the Human’s sideboard you can expect to see a couple copies of Dismember to deal with our large threats. It’s one of the only removal spells the deck can play with their mana base and it’s very efficient at clearing the way for their attacks.

Xathrid Necromancer is a way to get value out of our removal spells by replacing every human we kill with a zombie. It also makes both our blocks and attacks much worse knowing that every human that dies will be replaced.

Mirran Crusader can be a very difficult card to deal with and squeezes our removal even further by demanding a very specific answer.

Sin Collector can be a way to permanently remove a card from our hand. It’s better than Freebooter against us since, if given enough time, we’ll find a way to get that card back from Freebooter.

If you’re playing Abzan, expect your opponent to bring in some Izzet Staticasters to deal with your Lingering Souls.

Most of these cards are in sets of one or two and will be replacing Aether Vial mostly. The Humans opponent knows that if there is any chance of us turning the corner in the match, they’ll be in top deck mode sooner rather than later. Aether Vial becomes quite possibly the worst top deck when they’re trying to push damage and end the game. If you’re thinking of bringing in any kind of artifact hate for Vials, leave them in the sideboard. There’s a very good chance they’ll have no targets in games two or three.

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“Thalia’s Lieutenant” by Johannes Voss

The deck has taken the format by storm and doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Most people thought this was just a meta call, a way to punish the linear decks that were dominating the format. I don’t think many people will forget Storm scooping 40 seconds into game one of the SCG Cincinatti finals. 

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Meddling Mage names Grapeshot and the Storm player has no other win condition and no way to remove the Meddling Mage.

It turns out the deck is much more than just the fun-police for combo decks. It’s aggressive, disruptive, and should be respected by everyone. Even our decks, which prey on creature based strategies, shouldn’t approach the match lightly.