Icy Venom in the Steel City — Deck tech and tournament report

Guest post today by Dave Firth Bard! Unfortunately I didn’t make it out to Pittsburg, PA this year for the Eternal Central Old School Event. But Dave did and he did a great write up about it and used quite a unique and awesome deck. 

Enjoy!

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 7.34.26 PMIt was incredible to be able to participate in Eternal Central’s Old School Tournament at Eternal Weekend in Pittsburgh this year. I’ve been an enthusiastic follower of the 93/94 formats since October 2015, and one of the first things that I did as I bought into Old School was pore over the deck lists that were posted after the 2015 edition of the EC tournament. The only thing that kept me from attending in 2016 was a scheduling conflict with a major event at work, so my finally being there to take part in one of the world’s biggest 93/94 gatherings felt like a very long time coming.

Easily the best part of going to the event was getting to meet face-to-face with dozens of my fellow Old School junkies from all over the country — content creators in the community, folks I’ve chatted with about deck ideas or traded cards with by mail, and especially guys I’ve played against on Skype over the past couple years. Here, all in one place, were representatives from all of the major regional Old School groups in the United States, and individual players from seemingly everywhere in between. There was an impressive variety of home brews and classic archetypes among the range of decks played, as veterans and devotees of Old School found themselves mixed in with players who primarily partake in Vintage and/or Legacy. The size of the field reported at the outset of the tournament was 120, making it the largest contemporary gathering of Old School players held anywhere to date.

As a 93/94 enthusiast, I wanted to play something other than an established or stock list from the meta. The more games you jam, the more you begin to branch out and experiment, and perhaps moreso for me because I get bored with decks pretty quickly, and so I like to keep a collection of Old School staples that enables me to build whatever has me excited at the moment. I knew that I wanted to bring something a little off the beaten track to Pittsburgh, but still viable enough to win me some matches as I played my way through the new American meta. So, here is a little deck tech and report back on how I fared with my list: Icy Venom Toolbox.

Building and Playing Icy Venom Toolbox

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To be clear, this is not a deck for Spikes, and certainly not worth netdecking as I don’t even consider it to be particularly “good.” Like all proper Old School lists, this is a pet deck that started from my enjoyment of particular cards, in this case Psychic Venom, Icy Manipulator, Copy Artifact, and Transmute Artifact. It evolved from the “Ankh Vortex” list that I had played on the Wak-Wak “Super Sunday” webcam streams (see lists from April 2 and April 23 here), and my interest in that same janky pile was later re-kindled by Christopher Cooper when he piloted a very pure (and even jankier) mono-blue Venom list at GP Birmingham in mid-August. Iterating on the theme and really honing it has been a labor of love from start to finish, and my final 75 maintains some deliberately sub-optimal (some might say stubbornly sub-optimal) card choices.

I held myself to three guiding principles (see also: artificial constraints, dumb self-imposed rules) in the development of the list. First, I wanted to beat people with Icy Manipulator + Psychic Venom wherever possible. This led me to think of Venom purely as a win-con, so it came down to two copies maindeck from the full playset that I had used in earlier builds, which had been more thoroughly focused on messing with the opponent’s mana sources. Second, I wanted to avoid using any creatures at all (not even Factory) maindeck, to completely blank dedicated creature removal like Swords to Plowshares. Third, I refused to include any white cards, ever, because the trinity of Disenchant, Swords, and Balance is so strong and pervasive in the format. Balance in particular would be fantastic in this deck, and quite easy to splash for, but where’s the fun in that?

The plan of the deck is to more or less answer (or at least impede) the opponent’s threats with Icy Manipulator and a handful of burn spells (a playset of Psionic Blast and two maindeck Earthquake to start), challenge their mana development and usage (again with Icy Manipulator, the full playset of Strip Mine, plus two Phantasmal Terrain as virtual land destruction effects), then gradually whittle down the opponent’s life total with Psychic Venom, likely assisted by one or more of Mirror Universe, Triskelion, Earthquake to help seal the deal. Against control, it can take a more aggressive posture by going more all-in against mana resources and committing all of the burn to the opponent’s face. Straight-up powerful cards like Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Mana Drain, Recall, Demonic Tutor, Mind Twist, and Regrowth round out the business.

I wouldn’t really call this strategy an archetype in its own right, as it’s more like a riff on the “toolbox” deck tradition, or to put it even less charitably, it’s simply a non-negotiable core of janky cards that I enjoy, surrounded by a bunch of powerful restricted cards. A couple of card choices are worth discussing a little bit, though. The playset of Copy Artifact is probably the lynchpin of the entire deck, right there along with Icy Manipulator. The card is amazing when it’s played in the right context, and I tried to cultivate an environment that could really showcase its versatility. It can be a two-mana Icy Manipulator, another Chaos Orb, an insurance policy copy of Meekstone or City in a Bottle, it can serve as ramp in the early game, copying a Sapphire or a Sol Ring or a Fellwar Stone (even copying an opponent’s mana rock to help keep pace), it can duplicate and blank an opposing Juggernaut or Su-Chi. It’s one of the cards that I’m always excited to draw. The two copies of Phantasmal Terrain may be regarded as weak links in the maindeck, but I enjoy using them as virtual Strip Mines 5 and 6. They can neutralize an opposing Library of Alexandria or Mishra’s Factory without forcing a step backward in my own mana development, and in less pressing cases they can support Icy Manipulator in attempting to keep the opponent off of their colors.

The “toolbox” package in this deck is a pretty standard use of two Transmute Artifact to serve as virtual 2nd and 3rd copies of singleton artifacts that can be pulled up to suit the current situation. I settled on a kit of five such artifacts: Chaos Orb is an auto-include, and a favorite Copy Artifact target for reasons that should be obvious… flipping extra Orbs is sweet. Meekstone can abruptly shut down pressure from creatures commonly seen in mid-range strategies, helped especially by the synergy with Icy Manipulator. City in a Bottle in the maindeck has some functional overlap with Meekstone as they both impact Serendibs, Erhnams, and Juzams, plus it has the added benefit of wrecking LoA and City of Brass (one of the reasons I am only running two City of Brass myself). Plus, even a “dead” Bottle can be transmuted away to get something more relevant. Triskelion is the lone maindeck creature, but doesn’t really validate opposing creature removal as it’s generally used more like a spell here, immediately using the 3 dividable damage to kill a couple smaller creatures or just going to the face as a finisher. And Mirror Universe does serious work when you stabilize with your life total in the single digits, often halting the opponent’s attacks on the turn after it comes down, and justifying in some small way the inclusion of Time Walk, which is often not a very impactful card in Old School despite its Power status. And out of the sideboard, there’s a sixth artifact that can be swapped into the toolbox: Cyclopean Tomb, which is a very slow card but can all but lock the opponent out of the game when deployed in favorable circumstances. (Maybe also worth noting here that I considered and experimented with a singleton Black Vise, but it just wasn’t good enough in most situations, even with soft locks in place, as I don’t have enough ways to keep the opponent from at least slowly playing out their cards.)

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 7.23.01 AM The majority of the sideboard is pure color hate, with full playsets of Gloom (see guiding principle #3 above, white is boring and should be punished) and Blue Elemental Blast, plus two Red Elemental Blast (primarily to be used as outs against Energy Flux). An additional Shatter to complement the maindeck copy can be brought in against lists I suspect of running Nevinyrral’s Disk; there’s a bonus Meekstone for use against e.g. Erhnamgeddon, Bant, Naya midrange lists that pack full sets of Disenchant; a Braingeyser for slower match-ups; a Cyclopean Tomb as noted above; and last but certainly not least, the only copy of Guardian Beast in my collection, to board in after the opponent sides out their creature removal. Probably too cute by half, but it’s better to be cute than good.

The deck was workshopped over several weeks, including a BUG version I piloted during New England Old School’s GP Providence side event, easily a dozen matches on Skype with players around the world (join us!), and several conversations with my thoughtful peers on the Old School discussion Slack and the Old School Discord chat server (join us!).

And so, I woke up at 3:58am on the day of the EC Old School at Eternal Weekend event, hopped a 6am flight from Boston to Pittsburgh, had a good breakfast with some of my fellow 93/94 fans, and then happily battled my way through an interesting cross-section of the current American Old School meta.

Eight Rounds of Icy Venom at #ECOldSchool2017

Round 1 vs Goblins — Stu of Lone Star Lhurgoyfs, Austin TX

gooblinsG1: This was not an auspicious start for Icy Venom, as I got unequivocally rolled by the goblin horde and a healthy dose of lightning to the face.

G2: Much more interesting game, and one where I felt in control for most of the duration on the back of a turn one Library of Alexandria on the play. He had mulled to 5, and in the early offing I was able to engineer a 3-for-1 with Earthquake, which he hadn’t seen coming from my mostly blue deck. With seemingly overwhelming card advantage, I gained control of the board and brought down a Mirror Universe — at that point I was on 4 life and he was at 14. As he untapped, I had two available blue mana, with a BEB and Mana Drain in hand. He knew I had the BEB, because I had Recalled it back from my yard previously. He drew for the turn, giving him two cards in hand, with four mana available and a Goblin Balloon Brigade in play. Then he tapped three out of his four sources, leaving one red available, to cast Wheel of Fortune, with the one card remaining in hand. He hadn’t hit his land drop yet for the turn. Without much thought, I opted to BEB the Wheel, fearing a full grip of burn and another Mountain added to the board. Then he tapped his red source to play his final card in hand: Goblin Grenade! In hindsight, I should have played more mindfully, with the understanding that he was playing around the BEB he knew I had in hand. The more correct play with the Wheel on the stack was probably to BEB the Balloon, leaving my fate to chance instead of certain death.

Result: Fell to 0-1 (0-2 in games)

Round 2 vs UR Counterburn — Christopher, San Luis Obispo CA

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 7.30.43 AMG1: Here I found myself toe-to-toe with one of the most potent archetypes in Old School, and losing life at an uncomfortable clip, but I was able to pull out a Mirror Universe to swap my 8 life for his 17. He stuck a Serendib Djinn from there, with ~4 Islands and a Mountain in play. He was able to swing once with the Djinn before I slammed down a Meekstone and a Copy Artifact -> Meekstone for added insurance. The Djinn started eating him alive, and he scooped.

G2: My opening 7 contained Guardian Beast, Chaos Orb, Strip Mine, Strip Mine, Mox Jet, Meekstone, and maybe another land. I resolved a Chaos Orb, built to 4 mana, and then cast Meekstone in a gambit to bait out a counterspell. It paid off — he Mana Drained the Meekstone, and I was then able to resolve Guardian Beast. Even missing a couple Orb flips along the way, I was more or less able to destroy a permanent per turn after that, even getting a Cyclopean Tomb on the board to complete the lock-out and escape with a “flawless victory” against a very dangerous deck.

Result: Improved to 1-1 (2-2 in games)

Round 3 vs Grixis Goblins — Mike, Rockville MD

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G1: I had an early Phantasmal Terrain, and learned the hard way that he was on Grixis Goblins. He only had Goblins and a couple of Badlands in play at the time, and so I transformed a Badlands into an Island in an attempt to get my Fellwar Stones producing blue mana. This turned out to be a huge mistake, as my incorrect assumption that he wasn’t using blue cards ended up turning on his blue Power, including a Time Walk that kept his goblins attacking and the burn flowing.

G2: The second game was more back and forth, though my only recollection from the game was that I had resolved an early Mind Twist for 4 cards, and later he tapped out to cast Timetwister, which gave me back my Mind Twist. I untapped and got him for all 7 of his newly drawn cards. I locked him out of the game from there and never looked back.

G3: I had to mull to 6, which seemed to disappoint him a bit. He quickly revealed the reason why as he went on the play: Strip Mine, Lotus, Bolt, Chain, Goblin, Black Vise. OK then. So Black Vise ended up dealing ~9 damage over the course of the game, which got rather dangerous but I finally resolved a Mirror Universe, leaving him with 2 life and I finished him off with Icy + Psychic Venom.

Result: Improved to 2-1 (4-3 in games)

Round 4 vs Mono-Black Aggro — David of Tax Men, Atlanta GA

G1: I quickly found myself toe-to-toe with some Stone-Throwing Devils and a Juzam Djinn in this match-up. The full toolbox was on display here: I was able to stick a City in a Bottle, and later on Mirrored my life from 12 back up to 19. I muted for a Triskelion that I was able to swing with and spike to deal a total of 7 damage, then Earthquaked away his remaining 4 life on the same turn for the win.

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G2: I recall getting hit with an early and crippling Hymn to Tourach (white bordered!) that took a Demonic Tutor and Psionic Blast out of the hand that I had kept. Later, I had a Meekstone on the board to keep a Juzam tapped and slowly pinging him down, but he was able to break through and made quick work of it from there.

G3: This was when I realized too late that my sideboard plan was wrong. I had actually boarded out the two cards that won the first game for me (Trike and one Earthquake), bringing in a Shatter and second Meekstone on the incorrect assumption that he was on a higher-curve version of Mono-Black that had access to Nevinyrral’s Disk, a card that I really feared. Instead I found myself getting beat down by 1-toughness creatures, including an Order of the Ebon Hand I hadn’t seen previously, and the Stone-Throwing Devils that really should have clued me in to what his plan really was. I was too focused on Juzam and too afraid of Disk to read the signs, and I simply got rolled as he curved out well in this final game.

Result: Fell to 2-2 (5-5 in games)

It was after this fourth round that I found myself wondering… where are all of the white cards? Four Gloom in the sideboard and I hadn’t seen a single white spell all day. Until…

Round 5 vs Pink Weenie — Jack, Philadelphia PA

G1: I had to mull to 5, which proved to be not great against Savannah Lions, Thunder Spirits, and Lightning Bolts.

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G2: I had to mull to 6, but had boarded in my Glooms, gladly, for the first time that day. I barely stabilized in this game, but eventually engineered a board state where he was at 16 life, I had two Triskelions (my only natural Trike plus a Copy Artifact Trike) on the board, shot down a Thunder Spirit and hit him with Icy+Psychic Venom for 2, and on the next turn swung in for 6, went to the face with the spikes for 4, and did the final 2 damage with Psychic Venom.

G3: I was getting mauled by his menagerie but was able to get Glooms down and stabilized at 4 life. I was able to fire off Mirror Universe to swap life totals, putting me at 19 and him on 4. Unfortunately, the previous game had taken quite a bit of time (as often happens when my deck is doing its thing, namely, keeping the opponent from doing his thing), and even though I had a Gloom down, and Icy Manipulators effectively locking him out of the game, and had him on 4 life, we ended up going to turns. Sadly, despite my control of the board, I couldn’t find a win-con in a couple turns of topdecking. So, as dictated by EC rules, we went to Sudden Death Chaos Orb Flips. I was something like 11-2 for my Orb flips on the day, having had ample opportunities to flip when I had a Guardian Beast on the board in Round 2. Unfortunately, I felt the gravity of the moment, and my nerves just got to me in the clutch. I missed my flip, and Jack, who told me that he had never flipped an Orb in his life, borrowed my Orb and then proceeded to hit his flip with poise and grace. Having come into the tournament with a relaxed attitude, I had thought that nothing could get me salty that day, but I have to admit that this one stung a bit. I kvetched to my buddies, I imbibed, I moved on.

Result: Fell to 2-3 (6-6-1 in games)

Round 6 vs Mono-Black splashing U — Daniel, Tempe AZ

I have to admit I’m a little hazy on this matchup. Daniel was on a well-built Mono-Black list with Blue Power mixed in. According to my notes, I must have won the first game, which went back and forth. G2 matched my turn one Library of Alexandria against his turn one Hypnotic Specter, and we know how that ends. In retrospect I should never have kept the LoA hand without an answer to the quick Hyppie. G3 was just as fast — my only written record of the game was “19 16 14” before I scooped, so it must have been pretty bad 😉 Moving on…

Result: Fell to 2-4 (6-8-1 in games)

Round 7 vs Mono-Blue Robots — Jason, Lawrence KS

Now this was a fun match-up. Copy Artifacts were turned all the way on in this one, as Jason was ramping out Tetravuses with alacrity throughout the day.

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G1: I found myself swarmed by “independent” 1/1 flying artifact creatures, but I was able to stick a Mirror to switch my life total of 7 for his 15, and finish things off with a ‘quake for exactsies. (I boarded out my Earthquake immediately afterwards, as they’re quite ineffective against those independent flying creatures).

G2: I was on the receiving end of some serious Tetravus beatdown — I had an Icy up with Psychic Venom, but he was able to Copy his Tetravus and keep on pounding.

G3: He definitely hit the ground running with two Mana Vaults into a Tetravus, but I was able to neutralize it, Strip a mana source, and then he missed a land drop and I got Icy + Venom online, so he was soon taking 4 per turn from the Venom and his own two permanently tapped Vaults.

Result: Improved to 3-4 (8-9-1 in games)

Round 8 vs Stasis — Ryan, Wooster OH

This was a fun series between two decks that mostly want to keep the other player from doing their thing.

G1: I didn’t really understand his plan, and fired off two early Strip Mine, but he played a steady stream of Islands after that as I fumbled around looking for something else to do. Eventually he started showing me the tools of his trade — Ivory Tower, Black Vise, and ahh… Stasis. One Boomerang and a Reset later, and I was reaching for the REBs in my sideboard.

G2: This was a very long game indeed, on the back of the other card that I boarded in for the matchup: Cyclopean Tomb. That thing just took over the game, and over the course of several turns I had Swamped all of his Islands, and then got no fewer than 3 Icy Manipulator online to keep a handful of his sources locked down. He had also played a Winter Orb at some point, which I think hurt him more than me, as I had a healthy collection of artifact mana sources by the end. I eventually found both copies of Psychic Venom, and it went mercifully quickly from there.

There was very little time left for a full G3 between his Prison and my not-quite-Prison, so before too long we ended up going to Orb flips. I went first again, and hit my target — the unsleeved Argothian Pixies that all of my opponents had signed throughout the day. He took my Orb and flipped it directly onto the target as well, but the Orb had only turned 180 degrees in the air. And that was that!

Result: Improved to a final record of 4-4 (9-10-2 in games)

Then There Were Meatballs, and Closing Thoughts

I’m pleased to say that I accomplished the goals I had set for myself in the tournament. I fought my way back to a .500 match record, killed plenty of dudes with Icy Manipulator + Psychic Venom, even got a bonus Guardian Beast + Chaos Orb combo win, and at least avenged my earlier Sudden Death Orb Flip loss with a shootout win to cap things off. I was absolutely blown away to have had my list deemed “3rd Most Creative” in the event, earning me a Beta copy of The Hive with a sweet commemorative stamp, and also a dice bag signed by many of the participants and containing some promo swag from Dice City Games, including three tokens with custom commissioned Jesper Myrfors art.

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And I was absolutely thrilled to see that my teammates from New England Old School had achieved even more spectacular feats that day. Scott, my comrade-in-arms and deck testing partner from Boston, piloted Grixis Disco to an astonishing 4th place overall (7-1), nabbing a sweet Winter Factory and a rightful place in the top 4 of what will certainly become the go-to list of decks to beat in the American meta for the coming year. And Hunter, representing the Connecticut crew, brought a fantastic Kobolds list featuring an innovative sac outlet in Ashnod’s Altar, playing it to a 4-4 finish and winning top honors for “Most Creative,” taking home the coveted Chaos Orb-shaped trophy deck box. His brother Hart also received creativity accolades for his take on All Hallow’s Eve Reanimator.

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There was really nothing more to do after eight straight hours of Old School than to stumble out into the night and follow the crowd to food and revelry in downtown Pittsburgh. OK, to be clear, we were specifically following Dom, of Chicago’s Lords of the Pit, who kept shouting the word “meatballs!” over and over. And yes, there were indeed meatballs, and local brews, and of course some more casual games of 93/94 at the bar after dinner. (RG Goblins, for the record, makes a great palate cleanser after a day of grinding it out with Icy Manipulator.) My only regret was having to fly back to Boston the very next morning, because having that one night out with good guys I have come to know over the past couple years, just drinking and talking about the day’s events, was even more valuable to me in many ways than the main event itself. I wish I could have stayed longer into the weekend to take part in more of the same, and play in as many casual side events — both official and deliberately unofficial — as possible.

Perhaps the most vital takeaway for me was reflecting on how the Old School Magic tradition has grown across the United States over the past year. It’s a little bittersweet to realize that the largest possible gathering of American 93/94 players is now already too big to comfortably house in a tavern or brew hall. My own favored brand of Old School is played in more intimate environs, and as I’ve never played at a GP or any other event at competitive REL, this was easily the biggest and most “formal” tournament I had ever played in. All credit in the world is due to Jaco and Eternal Central for running a fantastic and smooth event that truly reflected the values and spirit of Old School despite the need for a bigger stage this year. There is a tension in the Old School tradition between formality and informality, and increasingly between player-organized events and events that are sponsored or even sanctioned-with-a-capital-S by WPN organizers. The coming year will bring ChannelFireball offering official 93/94 side events at every GP, and a growing number of LGS’s getting in on the game as well. At the risk of sounding like I’m on a soapbox, I think it’s incumbent on Old School players and especially the player-organizers to support the increased interest in and growth of the tradition while continuing to promote the ideals that attracted so many of us to begin with: aesthetics, nostalgia, experimentation, playing with what we own, and doing it all without significant prize support or regard for “expected value.” Old School will undoubtedly gain more fans and even some new critics as it continues to gain traction, and it’s our responsibility to keep it rooted as a movement driven by us, the players.

Thanks again to Eternal Central, and to my Old School friends old and new, it was great to see you — already looking forward to next year!

DFB

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8 thoughts on “Icy Venom in the Steel City — Deck tech and tournament report

  1. Very nicely written article, Dave. I’m impressed by your ability to recall your matches in such a flavorful way (or at all)! I’m glad I got to see the crazy last game of that Grixis Goblins match! Mirror Universe has got to be one of my favorite cards; it just feels so good to resolve its ability. Next year I’ll have to join some of the after-hours festivities… looks like I missed some great times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Winston! I scribbled down little notes and took photos of interesting plays and board states throughout the day, as there’s no other way I would be able to remember any of that 😉

      Like

  2. Dave, this is Jack from the orb flip in round 5! Sorry my first Orb flip went so smoothly, that might have been my buddy Marc’s moonshine kicking in. We had some great games, though I am just now learning of your hatred of white haha. I am working on a black-red-green (no white!) reanimator deck and if you’re ever looking for games with me or my buddy Marc, just let us know. What a fun event!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Also, just in general, a very well-written blog article (Jack again). I was going to catalog my 8 games more privately as there were some doozies (including playing Menendian, I’m sure he thinks I’m an idiot). I love reading about the games and strategy, your deck was super creative, and I hope to come back with something more creative in future years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Jack! Thanks for the kind words 🙂 Would love to read an account of your 8 rounds, even if you don’t publish it. I don’t actually hate white “for real,” but I think it’s fun to brew with different constraints to see how far I can push things in a certain direction. I actually just finished my playset of Unlimited Plateau and am almost finished with a playset of Revised Tundras, so I imagine I will be playing a couple decks with white at least for the foreseeable future. And even though the Orb flip-off had me tilted, I really enjoyed our series. If you’re ever up this way let’s definitely get together with Marc and the rest of the Boston/NH Old School crowd. Bring the moonshine.

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  4. Great report! I didn’t realize that now Copy Artifact could copy City in a Bottle without destroying both (it wasn’t like this in the old days). Good to learn! I dream of being able to attend one of these one day – but I’m a spike at heart and would probably play something like The Deck :

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