Making The Correct Choice

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Making the Correct Choice

It’s been a while, welcome back.  In the past month we’ve had holidays and life at my job has been quite busy, but I took it upon myself to try and improve as a Magic player and managed to play in five PPTQs.  While I’m not a huge fan of the system, if you want to qualify for the Pro Tour it’s one of your only tickets left (besides the last few real PTQs).  The process was a good learning experience, allowing me to understand the importance of specific playtesting and when I need to take an extra step outside my routines.

I started out by playing an updated version of my RG Aggro deck in the first two PPTQs.  The deck had a very aggressive slant and had done well for me both locally and online, so I figured it was a solid choice.  Putting people on the backfoot, especially at smaller tournaments like these with a variety of skill levels can be a nice advantage.  Right before the first PPTQ I played in, John Bolt top 4’d the Seattle SCG Open with an almost identical list, followed by Logan Mize playing it at the Player’s Championship.  That was enough of a push for me to continue on with the deck.  Here is what I played, making small changes along the way:

RG Aggro by Red Deck Winning

4 Elvish Mystic
4 Heir of the Wilds
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Fanatic of Xenagos
4 Boon Saytr
4 Ashcloud Phoenix
4 Stormbreath Dragon

4 Lightning Strike
4 Crater’s Claws

4 Wooded Foothills
4 Temple of Abandon
3 Mana Confluence
6 Forest
7 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Fated Conflagration
4 Arc Lightning
3 Destructive Revelry
2 Polukranos, World Eater
2 Xenagos, the Reveler

I liked elements of both Bolt’s and Mize’s lists, but ultimately fell short at the PTQs.  I started 2-1 at the first, before collapsing to finish 2-3.  At the second one it was a quick 0-2 drop.  The deck, while having raw power, doesn’t have many ways to pull out of poor situations or keep the attrition going when things slow down.  And while the PPTQs were small, they were filled with mostly tier 1 decks so most games were pretty tough battles regardless of matchup.  I’d often find myself winning and losing against the same decks (aka being on both sides of the fence in the same matchup).

A talented friend and I were talking after I had lent him the deck for an FNM, and he felt like some of the creatures were underpowered and would be better off just being burn spells.  I think that’s probably a wise direction, although diluting it too much might just make it a bad two-color version of something you could do better with three.  There’s also the more Monsters style route, ramping into Genesis Hydra and the like.  There was a local player piloting that at the PPTQ I attended this Sunday, and he went 4-0-1 into top 8 with it.  Xenagos, Pollukranos, and Stormbreath are all potent threats that the majority of decks in this Standard format have a hard time dealing with.

After the first two tournaments didn’t pan out, I started looking for a change.  There wasn’t anything glaringly wrong with my Mardu list from before, but I had grown a bit tired of playing with it and knew it was going to take time to figure out what changes to make to it in order to solve the tougher matchups.  One of our local area pros, Brian Kowal, had top 8’d a real PTQ with a new take on Jeskai Aggro.  His list had a few distinct cards that I was intrigued by, including maindeck Hushwing Gryff and Brimaz, King of Oreskos.

hushwinggryff

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. . .

Siege Rhino.  Hornet Queen.  Doomwake Giant.  Wingmate Roc.  Eidolon of Blossoms.  Satyr Wayfinder.  Sidisi.

All great cards, and all shut down by that little three mana bird.  He proved to be quite potent in the two PPTQs I’d play with him.  He’s been tried before, and people usually had polarizing opinions on his effectiveness, but once on the battlefield he forces your opponent to remove him or have half their cards become extremely limited.  In the matchups where he’s not that strong, he’s still a flash creature that can help you catchup on that all-important tempo, and he’s a flier which is a big deal in this format.

For reference, here was the original list that Brian top 8’d with:

4 Seeker of the Way
4 Mantis Rider
4 Hushwing Gryff
3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
4 Ashcloud Phoenix
2 Wingmate Roc

2 Gods Willing
4 Lightning Strike
2 Arc Lightning
4 Jeskai Charm
3 Stoke the Flames

4 Mystic Monastery
4 Temple of Triumph
2 Temple of Epiphany
3 Shivan Reef
3 Battlefield Forge
3 Flooded Strand
2 Plains
2 Mountain
1 Island

Sideboard
4 Disdainful Stroke
3 Glare of Heresy
2 Erase
2 Scouring Sands
2 Jeskai Ascendancy
2 Spirit Bonds

The list was thrown together fairly quickly as Brian audibled just before the tournament began, but a lot of the ideas were in the right place and it paid off for him.  For my first go with the deck, I cut the Wingmate Rocs which were a non-bo with Hushwing.  That situation doesn’t come up that often, but in testing it did come up for me some.  I replaced them with Stormbreath Dragon, which Brian said was also a consideration since it matches up well against Abzan’s removal and white creatures.  I removed the Jeskai Ascendancy and Spirit Bonds out of the board, both of which were never used by him, and instead put in more Gods Willing, Suspension Fields, and Prognostic Sphinx.

At the first PPTQ with the list, I lost my win-and-into top 8.  It was a small tourney (18 people) and I definitely made a lot of mistakes as I was getting my sea legs with the deck having only played a few games the night before online with it.  It felt like a better choice than the RG deck, given the fliers and high toughness of Brimaz, but the attrition matches were still grinding me out  at times and the deck felt like it needed some real draw power.  I had a lot of terrible mulligans and land draws, so for the next tournament I added 2 Dig Through Time to the main, and cut the curve down a bit by removing a few Phoenixes for Goblin Rabblemasters.  In the sideboard, I created a more controllish package rather than the “protect the queen” plan of Gods Willing.  While that strategy can be viable, especially with the high number of guys you can just keep playing (even if the first one gets killed), I didn’t like how you had to setup situations for it.  I also didn’t like that it was a dead card if your board was cleared away, a thing that happened on several occasions.  Ultimately, I finished 3-2 at the second PPTQ I played it in, and while it felt like the changes were good (especially Dig and Keranos out of the board), it didn’t look like the correct deck choice for this season.

There was one PPTQ left before a long break and the new set.  The night before, I didn’t know what to play, and the piles of cards in my deck case weren’t helping.  I scoured the interwebs, watching versus videos, scrutinizing over Jeskai lists from Grand Prixes and opens, but nothing felt like it would solve the big troubles of today.  Abzan Aggro.  Jeskai Tokens.  Specifically the former had been a popular deck since Andrew Tenjum, a well known SCG Pro who goes to school in my city, finished well with it at the first 2-day open they had.  The deck was everywhere, and it was beating me.  If I had stuck with Jeskai, David Ochoa’s undefeated list at Grand Prix San Antonio was my fruntrunner choice – Here – because of the counters it had, but it still didn’t look 100% correct on paper.  Every article you read or pro you talked to usually mentions that Jeskai is a dog to Abzan too, and while any Standard matchup is relatively close in this era, I didn’t want to be the “probable” underdog.  Furthermore, Abzan Aggro and Jeskai Tokens were about as aggressive as Standard gets (outside of Red Deck Wins and WU Heroic), so I figured if I can figure out how to beat them more often, I’d probably be mostly good elsewhere.

It was getting late, so I changed gears.  I proxied up Tenjum’s Abzan Aggro list, and put together the closest thing I could think of that is “sometimes” regarded as having a solid matchup against it; Mardu.  I used a mostly stock list to start, and played a number of goldfish games at my kitchen table with the two decks vs each other.  While not the best form of testing, I needed specific information on sequencing and what stuff was truly better than others when it came to card selection.  Despite the late hour, this process proved invaluable.  I stayed up until 2am, making changes to the list every 5-6 games  or so.  While I didn’t want inbred testing, I did really want to beat this deck and I had a good idea of what I needed to beat the other format contenders.  Eventually, I had still had a mostly stock Mardu deck but it was doing OK.

Fast forward to 6am.  I half wake up because of a sleep-deprived night dreaming of Siege Rhinos beating my face, and decide to drag myself out of bed and back to the kitchen table.  I look at Tenjum’s list again, studying each particular card and thinking of foils to them, along with creatures that maintain some parity.  I look at some of the huge Red rares in my box and think of this website and how I need to get back to my roots.  I brew.  I test.  And finally, I’m routinely beating Abzan Aggro.  It’s still winning some games based on sheer card quality and consistency, but the matchup is definitely favorable for me.  Now that the maindeck is fixed up, I look to the board and gameplan for what they will be bringing in (mostly Glare of Heresy, Planeswalkers, and possibly Drown in Sorrow).  To counteract that, I bring in things that have bigger toughness and upgrade my removal suite.  I then addressed the other matchups.  All in all, the list came together great and I’d run it back in a heartbeat, although with probably a few minor changes:

Mardu Deck Wins by Red Deck Winning – 5th-8th Place Madison PPTQ at Netherworld Games

4 Seeker of the Way
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Ashcloud Phoenix

3 Chandra, Pyromaster
3 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

3 Magma Jet
2 Arc Lightning
4 Lightning Strike
4 Chained to the Rocks
4 Crackling Doom

4 Nomad Outpost
4 Bloodstained Mire
3 Temple of Triumph
2 Temple of Silence
3 Battlefield Forge
2 Caves of Koilos
6 Mountain
1 Swamp

Sideboard
3 Anger of the Gods
3 Glare of Heresy
3 Thoughtseize
3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
2 Erase
1 Utter End

Part of the idea for the changes came from my old RW list that I played at the SCG Open in Minneapolis.  That list fell short in tournament play but had been great in playtesting with my friends, and I think a large part of its ultimate failure was that I was running too few lands, not enough gas, and missing good removal outside of Chained to the Rocks.

That missing piece was Crackling Doom main, and Thoughtseize sideboard.  As I prepared to switch back to the RW deck at my kitchen table, I had the thought that it might just be worth staying Mardu, but emulating what was best about the RW deck.  In my suite of games, Chained to the Rocks was the best card, along with Doom.  Maxing out on both seemed natural in a format that tends to be creature heavy with a lot of must answer threats, and being able to Thoughtseize post-board against Control decks or decks with heavy Planeswalkers was a nice replacement effect for some of these dead cards.

Chandra and Magma Jet fill in key roles for this deck despite not being cards you’d scream to have for this metagame.  Chandra’s +1 ability is often removing a blocker in a format where people tend to play one creature a turn, and in a deck where your creatures are often resilient or pushing in the last few points of damage, this falter effect is invaluable.  Her ultimate is a semi-real threat as you have enough burn in the deck to usually hit something, and her exile ability provides the needed fuel that was missing in many builds.  You miss out on the lifegain and 2-for-1 ability that Sorin provides, which can be big in some games, but I think the change felt better because of what THIS particular deck is trying to do.  In a deck with Hordeling Outburst, Sorin is probably the better call.  In this deck on the other hand, you’re usually playing a controlling or tempo role early on, so by the time Chandra lands it’s often on an empty battlefield or against threats not significant enough to remove her.  And Chandra on an empty battlefield is a pretty scary thing if your opponent doesn’t have the Hero’s Downfall to answer her.  Lastly, it doesn’t hurt to have a card that is reasonable against tokens in combination with Arc Lightning and the rest of your creatures.

Magma Jet is a necessary crutch against Abzan Aggro, as being able to kill Rakshasa when your opponent taps out or plays him early is an important part of winning the matchup.  Jet also provides more gas to a deck that is hungry for it, as again you are many times just playing draw-go.  Like I mentioned in my last article regarding tempo, the ideal is to remove their threat and then play your own, and this is one more card that makes it a possibility.  In matchups where it is bad, you can still dig for your better removal or even side it out if you don’t feel you need the extra scrying power.  Usually I kept it in for most matchups, as there always seems to be something to hit with it which allows you to save your other removal for better threats and I think the scry is very important.  Abzan Midrange and Sultai are probably the few exceptions.

The creatures in the deck are all trying to accomplish specific tasks.  They don’t look much different then the typical Mardu build, so I’ll address the key difference:  Ashcloud vs Butcher, and no Hordeling Outburst.  While Butcher and Outburst combo well together and help you win races at times, neither is particularly well suited against an Abzan matchup.  Butcher is killed by most of their removal, and Outburst doesn’t “do” anything on its own.  When my opponent has a Courser of Kruphix out, I don’t want three 1/1s.  Ashcloud Phoenix dies to some of their removal like Abzan Charm, but he’s certainly harder to kill.  He’s also good in the Mardu Mirror, essentially requiring a Chained to the Rocks to deal with and matching up nicely against their Butchers and Rocs.  And lastly, he’s great against Control which is something a lot of Mardu pilots struggle with.

Don’t get me wrong, Butcher/Sorin/Outburst builds are still very good.  I wouldn’t fault someone for going that direction and its clearly had success on a high level in the past (including my own).  But this deck was tuned with the current state of things in mind, and I think it attacks from an angle that often requires very specific answers.  Many of my opponents at the last PPTQ were just blown out in every game we played, as this build has some incredible power once you take control.  The phrase, “twelve you” was uttered quite often, and its because once you clear the board and get to four mana, “things get real”.

Another reason for the changes were due to my sideboarding.  I knew I was going to get somewhat more controllish post-board, but I didn’t want to change my deck so much that it becomes just a bad control deck like many of these archetypes are doing these days.  Having to take out Outbursts in addition to other stuff just felt awful, so in the instance of this build you’re basically just cutting some seekers and rabblemasters when you’re on the draw and bringing in Angers, Brimaz, Glares, and some of the other cards where appropriate.  On the play you can continue to be a beatdown tempo deck, and just spruce up some of the removal.  Arc Lightning, Magma Jet, Lightning Strike, etc, are often cards that can become the better removal from the board.  Against both Abzan Aggro and Midrange, Glare of Heresy and Utter End are both a lot better, especially since they plan to bring in mostly white Planeswalkers and it hits all of their creatures aside from Rakshasa.

Seeker of the Way is always the predicament of a card, being great on turn 2, but pretty lackluster beyond that.  He’s not the worst in the mid game where you may just want to cast multiple spells a turn, but his value definitely diminishes.  I’m fine if someone wanted to run 3 here, and have been on those builds a lot, but since I’m only running 12 creatures maindeck (15 if you count Sarkhan), I’d prefer to maximize my chances of having him early.  He’s also especially good with the amount of early burn spells, often meaning you can trigger prowess and remove blockers the turn after you play him.  Just be sure to not be forgetful like I was in my top 8 match where I gave him prowess only to have him get Abzan Charm’d.  The struggle is real.

I’ve talked a lot about Abzan, but this deck is well prepared for the rest of the field too.  Against Sultai you have Thoughtseize, Anger of the Gods, Erase, and Utter End.  These are all cards that can punish them pretty good, along with the amount of flying that basically only gets stunted by their Hornet Queen (which the other board cards take care of).  Arc Lightning is also a soft answer in the maindeck to that same problem.  Against Jeskai Tokens, Arc Lightning, Anger, Glare, and potentially Erase all put in double duty while Brimaz provides a very difficult blocker for them.

WU Heroic is a naturally good matchup, and it only gets worse for them postboard.  Sure, they can still win some games where they have the infinite Gods Willings, but it’s a very uphill battle for them.  Control is probably still tough, but you’re playing tempo cards.  So as long as you don’t overextend and bring in your Thoughtseizes and Utter End you should be good to go.  You could also bring in Brimaz if you just want another difficult to answer threat (which I’d probably cut small burn for).

One of the tougher matchups is Temur or RG.  It was a deck I didn’t expect to see a lot of at the PPTQs, since frankly I seemed to be the only one around here who thought it was good, but at the last PPTQ I went to it probably accounted for almost half the room.  This Mardu build doesn’t have many answers to Stormbreath Dragon, and their raw aggression can force you to have instant speed hard spot removal which this deck doesn’t have a plethora of.  You do still have Crackling Doom, Thoughtseize, Sarkhan, and Ashcloud Phoenix to combat him, but that only goes so far.  I went 1-1 against RG in the tourney, and often it was much of the same when testing against my own build.  If you wanted to make any changes to the Mardu deck, I’d probably start here by including a Murderous Cut or two, probably over 1 of the Arc Lightnings or Jets in the main.

What Did I Learn

Losing can be tough, but there’s always something there to be gained.  Here’s what I found to be valuable about this process:

  • Correct bad attitude – I was fairly salty after my losses, it’s still something with my game I need to improve.  I try to be a friendly cordial person with my opponents, but the stress of everyday life and not obtaining all my goals with this game gets at me sometimes.  Still, that’s no excuse, and I will try everyday to get over those hurdles.  I think being mature and letting others enjoy the game as much as you do is an important piece in being a tournament Magic player.
  • When you playtest for a tournament, make sure you actually play the games against the specific matchups you need to.  I would have crashed and burned at the last PPTQ had I not stayed up and become intimately familiar with the Abzan Aggro matchup.  I won’t let that same mistake happen twice.  Grab a buddy, carve out the time, and make sure you both get up to speed on what you need to, not just jam games against each others deck of choice.
  • Realize when your deck isn’t competitive.  I know this is kind of an oxy moron since I refuse to play Abzan, but it’s not so much that you need to play the quota “best deck” but rather that you need to play something that can actually hang.  It took me too long to get off what I was doing and move on, but you have to do what you have to do to win.
  • If you want to be the best, you may have to give up on the rest.  This PPTQ season involved missing some time from family, work, and things I really enjoy.  It wasn’t easy to make a run at it, but the flipside is improvement at a hobby I’m passionate about.  Maybe once you get to a certain skill level you don’t need as much time to recognize what works and what doesn’t, or maybe you just need to be born with the correct brain.  Either way, you have to fight for it.

The end result of the last PPTQ was that I was 3-1 going into the final round.  I could draw in with my opponent but he wished to play for seeding since if he lost he would still be in.  I wasn’t super happy about it (sorry Justin if you read this, you had every right to want that), but we played and I won strongly 2-0.  It was Abzan Aggro, and the practice made perfect.  I made top 8 as the 2nd seed, and was rewarded with homemade pie from the store (Thanks Netherworld Games!), along with the ol’ box of Khans.  I unfortunately lost in the top 8 to my friend playing Abzan Aggro, but the three games were close, coming down to me being 2 damage short of getting there.  He advanced and ended up winning the PPTQ, so all in all it was a nice end to the run.  And not only did the result make me sure I made the right choice, but also the fact that half the top 8 were people I had played before and knew I was capable of beating again.  The deck was good, and if you like Mardu I’d definitely sleeve it up next weekend and jam some wins.

As always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

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13 thoughts on “Making The Correct Choice

  1. Nice article! I always like your very thoughtful approach.
    Sorry I beat you. I was definitely afraid to play you. Had you won, you would have been happy to play two more rounds of Abzan aggro on the way to the trophy.
    Btw, I’m happy to help playtest and talk shop (maybe not @ 2am). You’ll have to win the next pptq so we can prepare for the rptq together.

    Keep tapping those mountains.

    • Haha no problem Paul, was happy to hear you got the ticket! And indeed, there will be more. There’s a real PTQ in Illinois this weekend if you want to carpool and play in that one

  2. I’ve been having a decent amount of success with a tweaked version of your r/g list. Played in a super iq and a pptq the last 2 weekends, each at about 70-80 players and lost the win and in in both. In one case it was hard mulligans and screw, the other I punted pretty hard. I still have a lot of confidence in the deck

  3. John – yet another wonderful article. Great write up and happy to hear you made top 8…next on to top 4 and then the win!!! I really like your bullet points at the end. I’ve realized point 3, working on point 2 and 4 now 🙂 Thanks to you!

  4. Loved the article! And loved even more the Mardu Decklist presentes. Having trouble with threats like Stormbreath?
    May i suggest? I will anyway!

    4 Seeker of the Way
    4 Goblin Rabblemaster
    4 Ashcloud Phoenix

    3 Chandra, Pyromaster
    3 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

    4 Magma Jet
    4 Lightning Strike
    3 Chained to the Rocks
    3 Crackling Doom
    3 Stoke the Flames

    4 Nomad Outpost
    4 Bloodstained Mire
    3 Temple of Triumph
    2 Temple of Silence
    3 Battlefield Forge
    2 Caves of Koilos
    6 Mountain
    1 Swamp

    Sideboard
    3 Anger of the Gods
    2 Glare of Heresy
    3 Thoughtseize
    3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
    2 Erase
    2 Arc Lightning

    Probably sleeving this up for the next week standard smackdown! Wish me luck!

    • Nice, glad you like both the article and deck! Yeah Stoke is definitely an option, although you may want Arc Lightning maindeck still for those tokens matchups. Could go either way though and just strengthen game 1 against your good matchups. Good luck!

  5. Love the article can wait for you to produce the next one for fate reforged. I’ve been playing a modified version of the Mardu deck and now I’ve replaced Windroc Mate with Brutal Warchief and holy crap that card has worth.

  6. I won my first Tourney using the following decklist (which is the same as yours but tweaked to the local meta)

    4 Seeker of the Way
    4 Goblin Rabblemaster
    4 Ashcloud Phoenix

    3 Chandra, Pyromaster
    3 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

    3 Magma Jet
    3 Stoke the Flames
    4 Lightning Strike
    3 Chained to the Rocks
    4 Crackling Doom

    4 Nomad Outpost
    4 Bloodstained Mire
    3 Temple of Triumph
    2 Temple of Silence
    3 Battlefield Forge
    2 Caves of Koilos
    6 Mountain
    1 Swamp

    Sideboard
    2 Anger of the Gods
    2 end hostilities
    2 elspeth suns champion
    3 Thoughtseize
    2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
    2 Erase
    2 Arc Lightning

    Now i will try this different approach using Fate cards:

    4 Soulfire Grand Master
    4 Goblin Rabblemaster
    4 Ashcloud Phoenix

    2 Chandra, Pyromaster
    3 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
    1 Outpost Siege

    3 Magma Jet
    3 Stoke the Flames
    4 Lightning Strike
    3 Chained to the Rocks
    4 Crackling Doom

    4 Nomad Outpost
    4 Bloodstained Mire
    3 Temple of Triumph
    2 Temple of Silence
    3 Battlefield Forge
    2 Caves of Koilos
    6 Mountain
    1 Swamp

    Sideboard
    3 Anger of the Gods
    3 end hostilities
    2 elspeth suns champion
    3 Thoughtseize
    2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
    2 Erase

    • Otavio congratulations! Happy to hear my work could help you to some success :). I’m working on all sorts of lists right now and hope to have an article up this week if time allows. Good luck when you run it back

  7. I’m not sure where you’re getting your info, but great
    topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more
    or understanding more. Thanks for magnificent info I was looking for this info for my mission.

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