By Adam Cai
The weekend of the SCG Invitational in Baltimore my buddy Jeff Sirkis and I flew into Washington DC to stay at the apartment of another friend, Nick Reynolds. My job keeps me fairly busy, so I didn’t have as much time to prepare as I would have liked. It also didn’t help that as soon as I landed in DC, Nick was trying to distract me with talk of some combo deck he was brewing that would take longer than the age of the universe to execute. I refused to let him tell me anything about it, and instead I got busy making last minute decisions about the decks I was going to play. For Standard, I decided on Michael Jacobs’ Esper Control list without much ado, as control is generally my style of choice, and, to be honest, I thought my time would be better spent polishing my Legacy deck. For Legacy I went with a variation of the Loyal Maverick deck I played previously at GP Indianapolis:
This is a list that I came up with before the GP using ideas from existing Maverick lists and my experiences playing them. I decided that Stoneforge Mystic just wasn’t pulling her weight in most of my matchups, and moreover that I’d rather just draw a Jitte than any Sword in almost every situation. Caleb Durward suggested just maindecking two Jittes if I planned on running no Mystics, so that’s what I did.
With the slots from the Mystics freed up, I was looking for something more powerful to do with my deck. I had been casually testing Elesh Norn and Loyal Retainers since January, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to play her in a real, competitive setting. I asked several people their opinions on Elesh Norn prior to the GP, and most of them chuckled and told me the Retainers package was too cute. Once again, Caleb came to my rescue, and was the only person to really support the idea. He said to me, “Adam, if there is one thing I’m good at, it’s being able to tell what type of jank is good jank. Just play her and smash people with it.”
Another unusual thing about this deck is that it plays 24 lands, whereas most Maverick decks had only 21 or 22 at the time. Before the GP, I was running around frantically searching for ideas for my 60th card. Gerry Thompson alone suggested, simply, a 24th land, mirroring a suggestion he made at the SCG Open in Dallas last year, where we both ended up playing an extra land and 61 cards. Then and now his logic was that you need to be able to cast your spells. Good players can recover from being flooded, but not from being stuck on lands or colors. Given that I was running Dryad Arbor, Maze of Ith, and Gaea’s Cradle, 24 lands actually seemed like a pretty great idea. It also doesn’t hurt that more lands makes Elesh Norn easier to cast.
I finished the GP with an 11-3-1 record, good enough for top 32, and was quite pleased with how the deck handled. During one particularly memorable Maverick mirror, my opponent had an Elspeth at 6 loyalty, a Noble Hierarch, a Mother of Runes, a Stoneforge Mystic, a Sword, a Scavenging Ooze, a Soldier token, and a freshly cast Knight of the Reliquary. All I had was a Scavenging Ooze, an active Knight, and a just cast Fauna Shaman. At the end of my opponent’s turn, I fetched a Gaea’s Cradle and used the mana to exile all of the lands and two creatures in my opponent’s graveyard with the Scavenging Ooze, making it a 4/4. On my turn, I activated the Fauna Shaman, tutored up Elesh Norn, and had just enough mana to hard cast her with the help of another Knight activation. Elesh Norn wiped my opponent’s board and made my Ooze a 6/6, just big enough to take down Elspeth!
Despite my best efforts at convincing people that Elesh Norn was actually very good, most people still denied her raw power and utility. I heard many arguments like these:
- The combo takes up too many slots.
- It isn’t as effective if the opponent knows it’s coming.
- It’s too slow. The fastest you can reasonably expect to get Elesh Norn into play is turn 4.
- She costs too much to be reliably hard-cast.
- Fauna Shaman dies to removal spells.
- I tested it and it was just too gimmicky.
To address each of these individually:
- Fauna Shaman actually adds a great deal more consistency to the deck, which is one of the things that makes Maverick so good to begin with. Shaman is a very solid creature by herself and does so much more than just enable the Elesh Norn combo. It’s like having still more copies of Green Sun’s Zenith, except Shaman can tutor non-green creatures! That point can’t be stressed enough, as many key creatures in a lot of important matchups (including the mirror) can’t be tutored by Zenith. (And some of those creatures are even legendary and can be reanimated by Loyal Retainers. Far from “taking up a slot”, Loyal Retainers adds a lot of value!)
- My personal experience, a fair portion of it against very good players, indicates that Elesh Norn is quite impactful whether your opponent knows she’s coming or not. Many of my opponents at both the Open and the Invitational knew about my Elesh Norn package, and generally they could do very little about it. It’s not like most decks really have the luxury of declining to develop the board simply because of a potential Elesh Norn.
- Often, it doesn’t particularly matter if Elesh Norn takes a while to get out. Most Maverick mirrors (and other aggro matchups) are very grindy. A turn 3 or 4 Elesh Norn isn’t even something to strive for most of the time. She has an extremely backbreaking effect that will turn the tide of a game no matter when she finally drops. Moreover, the later Elesh Norn finally hits the table, the more devastating she is likely to be. It’s easy to imagine an opponent just Swords-ing a turn 4 Elesh Norn and then climbing their way back into the game. She’s much more irreversibly soul crushing when she drops on turn 8 and wipes your opponent’s entire board. Even if she gets Swords’ed immediately after that, the damage has been done.
- Most people have the impression that Elesh Norn costs too much because Loyal Retainers was previously used with Iona; however, Elesh Norn costs 2 mana less and does not require triple white. She is much easier to cast. You can produce 7 mana from a Noble Hierarch, a Scryb Ranger, and 4 lands! It’s also very easy to get to 7 mana with a Gaea’s Cradle, which a Knight can tutor. I can actually say that I’ve never been sad to just draw an Elesh Norn, and I hard cast her at least as often as I reanimate her.
- While it’s true that Fauna Shaman presents a huge and obvious target for removal, that doesn’t mean she will always be removed. Most of the creatures in Maverick are absolute must kills for some decks, and often they feel obliged to waste their removal on something else before a Shaman hits the table. I’ve always felt that Legacy is a format more about card selection than card advantage, which is part of the reason Maverick can win while being a “fair deck” that one-for-ones people. Having Shaman die isn’t all that bad either, because that’s just one fewer removal spell for your Knight of the Reliquary.
- Lastly, I’m sure this has been said countless times, but you shouldn’t always take someone else’s word on everything. Testing an idea on your own has a lot of value, and it’s definitely not always a good idea to give up on something just because a lot of fine players think it’s too unconventional.
The 3 matches that I lost at the GP were against Storm, Hive Mind, and RUG. The RUG match was very one sided as Matt Costa had a Forked Bolt in his opening hand in both games and a counter for pretty much everything else. I still felt that RUG wasn’t that bad of a matchup, though, given previous testing. What the GP did make me realize, however, was that the deck was still quite weak to combo decks, even with all the hate bears.
When designing my deck for the Invitational/Open, I kept that in mind and searched for ways to better my chances against combo. I played a Bant Maverick list earlier this year in SCG Atlanta, and I really liked the Spell Pierces out of the sideboard. Spell Pierce is an efficient way to disrupt a combo or force through a hate bear while also being quite good against control matchups. Another menace that resulted from the GP was the inevitable proliferation of Tom Martell’s Esper Stoneblade deck, and having Spell Pierces and Flusterstorm for their Perish post board definitely couldn’t hurt.
I decided to throw in two Tropical Islands and increase the number of fetches to seven while cutting a Forest, a Savannah, and a Horizon Canopy. I already knew that the main deck was well positioned to beat aggro, and I felt that my plan against combo and control were much better with the addition of some counters. This is the list that I finally settled on for the Invitiational, and then the Open:
2 Gut Shot
I ended up going X-2 in the Legacy portion of the Invitational, with a more disappointing 4-4 record in Standard. That sounds worse than it really is, as that was good enough for top 32, due to the tournament having 16 Swiss rounds. My only two losses in Legacy were to Esper Stoneblade, but mostly, I believe, due to incorrect sideboarding. After working out my sideboarding issues, I performed quite well against Esper decks.
Once again Elesh Norn gave me free wins against aggro decks, this time Goblins and Affinity. There were several board states where it would be more accurate to say Elesh Norn outright stole me the win, but that’s just how powerful she is. You’re almost never drawing dead with her in your deck. Feeling good about my list, I decided to register the same 76 for the Legacy Open on Sunday.
An interesting and unlikely board state arose in my Invitational match against Ben Wienburg, playing Esper Stoneblade. In game 2, I kept an opener with 3 Wastelands, Choke, Savannah, and a couple of creatures. He Inquisitioned my Choke, but I ended up drawing a 4th Wasteland and kept him stuck on lands for quite a while. I flooded out on lands while he Swords-ed and Path-ed all my creatures. I was stuck with just a Jitte in play as I drew more lands. Just when Ben was finally able to get enough mana to cast Lingering Souls, I hit my 8th land. This allowed me to hard cast Elesh Norn while leaving Karakas open to protect against Swords to Plowshares. Next turn Elesh Norn picked up the Jitte and made Tetsuo proud. I just thought I’d share this story since the Praetor probably doesn’t get to carry a Jitte very often.
Round 1 vs. Ethan Stell (Reanimator)
Game 1 – Ethan mulled to 5 and had no early plays. I played a Knight, then he Entombed Iona and reanimated her next turn. I fetched Karakas.
Game 2 – Ethan mulliganed again, and my opening hand was something like Knight, Hierarch, fetch, Karakas, Swords to Plowshares, Spell Pierce, and Surgical Extraction. I beat down for a few turns and Spell Pierced a Show and Tell for the win.
Round 2 vs. Kenny Mayer (Punishing Maverick)
Game 1 – We both kept land-light hands. I opened with Hierarch and Shaman while Kenny opted for Stoneforge Mystic, fetching Jitte. I played my own Jitte to preemptively counter his, and cast Scryb Ranger. Then came a crucial turn where Kenny cast a Knight leaving just a Hierarch untapped for mana. I searched for Elesh Norn at end of turn and reanimated her with Retainers on my turn. Kenny’s knight was just a 2/2, but he could have left open a Wasteland instead of a Hierarch when casting it. I think the game would have developed quite differently had he saved the Wasteland instead of Swords-ing my Elesh Norn on the spot with mana from the Noble Hierarch. He tried valiantly to recover from the one-sided Wrath, but couldn’t develop quickly enough.
Game 2 – Kenny started out much faster this time and got Grove of the Burnwillows / Punishing Fire assembled immediately. He ended up killing most of my guys but life totals were swinging massively due to him repeatedly tapping three Groves and a Horizon Canopy. With me in the high 30s and Kenny below 10, I ripped a Linvala, and then an Elesh Norn (hard cast) to get back into the game, but he ripped Swords in return to reset both our boards. As the dust was settling I tutored a Scavenging Ooze with Zenith to remove his Punishing Fires, also growing the Ooze to a 12/12 off an ample supply of corpses. At this point Kenny was just chumping while I drew blanks for several turns. Finally he got a Knight and a Sword of Feast and Famine into play, but then time for the round ran out. I was at 50+ life at that point, and Kenny was below 5. He graciously decided to scoop to me since I won game 1, and there was no way he could kill me in turns. It was still unclear who would eventually win, though Kenny did have the upper hand.
Round 3 vs. Mark Quackenbush (GW Maverick)
Game 1 – An uneventful game. The board quickly stalled until I had a moment to grab Elesh Norn and just put the game out of its misery.
Game 2 – This game was similar to the first. Mark cast a Knight the turn after I cast a Shaman, I then grabbed an Elesh Norn and hard cast her by fetching a Gaea’s Cradle with my own Knight. That wiped Mark’s entire board except his summoning sick Knight. He cast another Knight on his turn and passed back to me. On my turn I then fetched Bojuka Bog with my Knight, but Mark was ready for that and in response fetched a Karakas to bounce Elesh Norn. In response I floated exact mana and simply recast her so she could finish the job she started the turn before.
Round 4 vs. Ross Merriam (GW Maverick)
Game 1 – We both quickly developed our boards without much disruption. Ross had two Mother of Runes, a Scryb Ranger, and a slew of other creatures, including a Sylvan Safekeeper, but no Knights, while I had two Knights and some other dorks but no Moms to push them through. I finally got an active Shaman and thought I would be able to take control of the game. This is where I made one of my biggest mistakes of the tournament, and one that definitely couldn’t be chalked up to fatigue. Ross had passed the turn with 6 mana open. I had two active Knights, an active Shaman, and some Hierarchs. I played a fetchland and cracked it to test the waters for a potential Aven Mindcensor, and Ross, indeed, flashed in a Mindcensor. Here I should have activated my first Knight in response, but instead I activated my Shaman in response and was completely blown out when Ross flashed in a second Mindcensor. Had I activated a Knight first, I could have activated my second Knight and the Shaman in response to the second Mindcensor and cast Elesh Norn that turn. I ended up losing due to my inability to search for anything relevant.
Game 2 – Ross played a bunch of mana dorks, while I had a turn 3 Linvala that went unanswered.
Game 3 – This was the exact opposite of game 2. I played the mana dorks, while Ross had a quick Linvala that I could not answer.
Round 5 vs. Lukasz Hall (Esper Stoneblade)
Game 1 – This was an odd game as Lukasz and I both mulliganed to 4. We spent the early turns doing mostly nothing, but eventually I got two Knights in play protected by a Mother of Runes, while Lukasz was busy setting up Stoneforge, Batterskull, and some Lingering Souls. Since he had multiple colors of creatures in play, I couldn’t force the Knights through with Mom. Lukasz couldn’t suit up a Spirit due to Maze of Ith and the need to have a non-white creature, but even so, the Spirit tokens were starting to hurt. I doggedly activated both Knights, filling my graveyard with fetchlands and forests until both Knights were each large enough to kill in one hit. I then Swords-ed Lukasz’s Germ token and swung for lethal with a pro-white activation from Mom.
Game 2 – I quickly established a board of Mom, Thalia, Choke, and still had all these Wastelands.
Round 6 vs. Mark Strassman (Burn)
Game 1 – Mark looked and sounded like he was having a good time at this tournament. It’s always nice to see people having fun with a deck they enjoy playing. Like all good burn matches, Mark opened with a turn 1 Goblin Guide and started pelting me with lightning and fire. The Guide didn’t take me anywhere I wanted to go, but I stuck a few creatures and was making a decent effort of racing, as Mark didn’t draw any creatures other than the 2/2. The game hinged on one crucial juncture where Mark Bolted me at the end of my turn with me on 3 life. He had no cards in hand, so I decided to plow my Gaddock Teeg – who was a 4/4 due to exalted triggers – instead of my Pridemage, so that Mark would still be dead on board next turn. Naturally, he peeled a Fireblast to finish me off.
Game 2 – This game was similar to the first one, with one key difference: one of my creatures was a Scavenging Ooze. Mark never got a single creature into his graveyard, but I was able to use a Shaman to throw some creatures into my own graveyard for my Ooze to snack on. Mark tried to Price of Progress me for 4, but in response I sacrificed a Tropical Island to my Knight, fetched a Wasteland, then wasted my own Savannah for the win.
Game 3 – For the third game in a row Mark started with a turn 1 Goblin Guide, and again it was his only creature of the game. I thankfully had an Ooze this time as well, but was unable to get any creature cards into either graveyard. I did my best to race Mark’s burn with seemingly indestructible creatures while trying not to overdevelop my board and fall victim to a massive Price of Progress. He tried to finish me off a several times but each lethal spell was met with a Spell Pierce or a Flusterstorm. That ended up being enough to get it done.
Round 7 vs. Stu Somers (High Tide)
This match was played at a feature match table, though it got no coverage.
Game 1 – Stu went off very quickly.
Game 2 – I had a turn 1 Mom into turn 2 Thalia, and Stu was unable to find the answers he needed due to the lethargic pace imposed by Thalia.
Game 3 – I again had a turn 1 Mom, but didn’t cast Thalia until turn 3. Stu’s Force of Will wasn’t forceful enough to deal with my Spell Pierce, and I passed the turn with Thalia on the battlefield. Stu failed to find a 4th land and passed without a play. I cast an Ethersworn Canonist on my turn and he Meditated in response. At this point, Gerry Thompson, watching from the rails, was yelling at us to stop, since Stu didn’t have enough mana to cast Meditate due to Thalia’s penalty. The feature match area was fenced off with observation decks raised a good four feet off the ground, and the convention center was quite loud, so neither of us noticed Gerry trying to get our attention until Stu had already drawn his four cards. Stu dutifully informed the judge monitoring an adjacent feature match, and was penalized with a game loss. He didn’t seem too broken up about it, as he admitted that he really had no way to win through that board.
Round 8 vs. Sam Black (Zombies)
I’d watched Sam play a few games before this round and was not looking forward to the matchup. He actually brings in all 15 sideboard cards against Maverick! But Elesh Norn was able to steal me the win in game 1, and Sam was fairly unlucky in game 2. His deck looked exceedingly fun to play, and it’s definitely a deck I plan to mess around with in the future.
Detailed written coverage of this match can be found here.
Round 9 vs. Bryan Gottlieb (Dredge)
Bryan and I realized before the pairings that we’d probably have to play each other for a spot in the top 8 due to our tiebreakers, and indeed we did. All I can say is Thalia is an amazing card in this matchup. I lost very quickly in game 1, but rode Thalia to victory in games 2 and 3.
One thing to note is that Dredge is very land light, so a Thalia plus a Wasteland can just end the game on the spot. If you have them, you should also consider sideboarding Gut Shots against Dredge, as you can kill your own creatures to remove Bridges from Below from Dredge’s graveyard.
Video coverage of this match can be found here.
Ultimately, being forced to play in the last round of the Swiss was a blessing in disguise because of the new Top 8 play/draw rules. Not being able to draw in, I ended up the 2nd seed behind Todd Anderson, enabling me to be on the play in all my matches except the finals against Todd.
When I saw that there were six Maverick decks in the Top 8 I was quite happy. My deck was geared towards beating the mirror and other aggro matchups. Unfortunately, for my quarterfinal match I was paired against Alix Hatfield, High Tide master, and I knew I was in for some stormy weather.
Quarterfinals vs. Alix Hatfield (High Tide)
An interesting idea in this matchup is to activate your Mother of Runes main phase. During the third game, I had two Moms and an Ethersworn Canonist in play. To prevent Alix from using Wipe Away on my end step, I gave my Canonist pro blue during my main phase, so I could replay it if he used Wipe Away. This forces the High Tide player to use Wipe Away on his own turn, giving him access to less mana.
Another fun interaction is the fact that Loyal Retainers can reanimate a Thalia or Gaddock Teeg that was previously countered. This is just another perk of running the Elesh Norn / Loyal Retainers package.
Game 2 of this match in particular was truly inspiring, as Alix successfully comboed through double Surgical Extraction and Spell Pierce, with only one High Tide active, for exactly lethal.
Written coverage of this match can be found here.
Video coverage of game 3 can be found here.
Semifinals vs. Ross Merriam (GW Maverick)
Ross had been my only loss of the day during the Swiss, and I had watched a few of his other games throughout the day. He was playing extremely well, and I knew I was in for a tough fight.
Game 1 – This game went unusually quickly for a Maverick mirror. I had an absurdly good draw that resulted in me having two creatures and a Jitte in play on turn 2. By turn 3 I was swinging for the fences and my Jitte counters picked apart Ross’s creatures without difficulty.
Game 2 – Ross steadily ground out an ever increasing advantage until I was way behind on board. But once again, Elesh Norn, in spectacular fashion, showed why she is the ultimate trump card in aggro matchups. If you watch one game, make it this one, to witness the sheer savagery of an Elesh Norn comeback.
Detailed written coverage of this match can be found here.
Video coverage of this match can be found here.
Finals vs. Todd Anderson (GW Maverick)
I’ve known Todd for a while and he is a formidable opponent. I was looking forward to testing my mettle against him in the finals, and was proud as well to have an all-Alabama finals. If only Todd was an Auburn alum, we could have gotten ESPN coverage!
As we were examining each other’s deck lists, Todd gamely quipped, “61 cards? Adam, what are you doing?” He was just having a bit of fun, though I’ve seen instances in the past where people have sincerely expressed the opinion that it’s never right to run more than 60 cards.
I’m no stranger to a 61 card maindeck, and I think there are actually some decent reasons for the extra baggage. One of the best is when you are running a deck with lots of singletons and doubletons, as well as ways to search for them. These sorts of toolbox decks can benefit greatly from the addition of another good tutor target, while losing only miniscule amounts of value due to the reduced chances of drawing the cards that actually make the deck function.
Anyway, the games against Todd were painfully slow and grindy, with mistakes on both sides (both of us were quite tired as we had both played all day Friday, all day Saturday, and now all day Sunday and into the night), but overall the outcome was unsurprising as I drew multiple Moms both games while Todd didn’t draw any.
Detailed written coverage of this match can be found here.
Video coverage of this match can be found here.
Maverick’s continued dominance in major tournaments ensures it will be one of the decks to beat for weeks or months to come, until people start devoting serious resources to beating it. So keep in mind that people are going to start packing more hate, like Massacre and Sulfur Elemental. But also keep in mind that, in the immediate future, you are likely to face more Maverick decks than ever before. If you decide to play Maverick, consider stacking your deck to be even stronger in the mirror. If Maverick is a large part of your local scene and combo is not, then it’s even possible to splash black for Zealous Persecution out of the sideboard for a significant edge. Something else to consider in a Maverick infested meta is to move Bojuka Bog and one Linvala to the main deck.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments section here, and I will do my best to respond to them. Many thanks to Caleb Durward and Gerry Thompson and everyone else I drew inspiration from for their invaluable deck building advice. Thanks to Nickolas Reynolds for patiently copyediting this very article and for bringing me water and snacks while I played in the Open. Thanks to Jupiter Games for giving me the opportunity to write this article, and to SCG for their great Open Series. And most of all, thanks to Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, for bringing her magnificence to our world.