If you played Standard during the Zendikar/Scars of Mirrodin rotation, you don’t need any introduction to this deck. Because you’ve played against it already. Over and over and over and over again. Because you remember a time when every single deck in Standard was Caw Blade.
But we may have some readers who are newer to the game, and don’t remember those dark days. To them I say: you know how sometimes you say something like, “every single deck in Standard is mono-black devotion,” and you don’t really mean it? You’re exaggerating a little, there’s also RG Monsters, and Esper Control, and so on. What you really mean is, “mono-black devotion is really dominant.”
Yeah, that’s not what’s happening here. Every single deck in Standard was Caw Blade.
So how did that happen? What made the deck so powerful that every competitive player rushed out to netdeck it until the banhammer had to come down and neuter the deck while it was still in Standard? Well, it would be unfair (and marginally insane) to not mention the power of cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, both of which were the subject of the aforementioned bans. But the basic two-card machine that drove the deck, the place where the deck got its name, was as follows:
The general idea behind the combo is that it’s essentially a removal-proof damage engine. If you’ve got one Squadron Hawk, you’ve got four. And equipment doesn’t die when the attached creature dies, so if they ping off your hawk, you can just cast another and reattach the sword. With such a resilient win condition that takes up so little space in the deck, you can devote the rest of your cards to a control shell that locks your opponent out of any action.
In Standard, the deck was a monster. As control cards go, you really can’t beat Jace, the Mind Sculptor. And with Stoneforge Mystic making sure there was always… always a Mirran sword in your hand, games quickly got obscene. Throw in a Gideon Jura and a few Celestial Colonnades as alternate win conditions, and now you’re just showing off.
So the banhammer came down, and it came down so hard that when official support for Modern was announced, Jace and Stoneforge Mystic were both pre-banned before anyone could even build a deck. Still, if a powerful deck exists once, people will try to make it happen again. It showed up a lot in the early days of Modern (lo those couple years ago), stepped back to a tier 1.5-2 deck in 2013, and seems to have vanished altogether now, replaced by less gimmicky UW Control decks.
That being said, even without the power it held in Standard, even without the two monsters of the ban list, there’s still plenty of price to be found in this deck. Mirran swords of any flavor range outside our price limit for this column (except Sword of Body and Mind, and honestly, I think we can do better), and Celestial Colonnades have found a home in those UW Control decks I mentioned before. A very expensive home. Good schools in the neighborhood, and a gorgeous view of the lake.
Thankfully, a few cards have come out since Caw Blade’s day in the sun that I think can help us put something solid together.
Mentor of the Meek
I don’t know why this card isn’t a bigger deal. Okay, that’s not true; it’s a potentially powerful effect, but one that requires some work before you see any payoff, and Magic players hate that. You probably won’t draw the first card it provides until the following turn, and that’s contingent on having another creature in your hand.
But you know what Squadron Hawks do really well? Put another creature in your hand. Keep yourself drawing on into those counterspells and creature removals, even while you get your win condition on the board.
Ephara, God of the Polis
Everything I just said about Mentor of the Meek? Double it. You’ll probably never trigger Ephara’s devotion. Don’t care. You’ve got an indestructible draw engine that triggers off every creature, and you keep piling cheap creatures into your hand. Ephara and Squadron Hawks are like a match made in heaven.
Obviously, if we’re going to make Caw Blade work without blades to put on our caws, we’re going to need another weapon to step up. And this seems like the obvious choice to me. What does UW Control do? It throws spells in the graveyard. Mana Leak. Path to Exile. Sleight of Hand. It makes relentless tempo advantage that in turn generates fuel for the Runechanter’s Pike. Swinging with a 5-power flying first strike that can be replaced immediately after death is not an experience that makes anyone wants to be on the receiving end.
So, now that we’ve got the core of our deck together, is there anything else we should consider?
I mentioned earlier that the Standard version of this deck ran Celestial Colonnade. There’s a reason. Manlands are powerful stuff, especially in a deck that tends to durdle its way to victory a point or two of damage at a time, or wipe the board every so often just for fun. Drop it on an early turn, and it’ll swing for you as you wear on into the midgame. In a pinch you can even put a pike on it and swing for sudden lethal.
If you play this deck, I want you to do something for me. I want you to hold one Squadron Hawk in your hand. Then I want you to play Terminus off a miracle. Then I want you to cast your Squadron Hawk.
Then I want you to laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Bonus points if you have a couple of those Faerie Conclaves out.
Elixir of Immortality
In general, this is a pretty handy card for budget players. If you’re up against other budget decks, you’ll see a lot of burn and dredge, both of which hate to see this hit the board. But it’s also got another pretty fantastic interaction with Squadron Hawks.
Let’s say your opponent has finally gotten rid of three of your Squadron Hawks. He keeps pinging them off, but you keep casting another. But now he’s feeling pretty good; you’re down to your last hawk, he just needs to polish this one off and he’s good to go.
Shuffle that graveyard back into your library. Cast your fourth hawk. Catch your opponent’s tears in a cup. Drink deeply, my friend. Throw a couple Mistveil Plains in the deck if you’d like to follow those tears with a delicious bile chaser.
Now we put it all together, what have we got?
Hawk the Polis
If you’re playing this deck, remember: don’t rush yourself. With a hawk and an equipment in your hand, it’s easy to feel like you’re playing an aggro deck. But this is control, through and through. Make sure creatures enter and leave the board only on your terms. Keep your counterspell/removal mana open. Keep the cards coming into your hand. Get the hawks on the board, and be ready to whittle your opponent down to nothing, one swing at a time.