Sullivan Red at #SCGRICH by Andrew Frank

A guest feature article by follower Andrew Frank who recently went 6-3 to make Day 2 at the Starcitygames SCG Richmond Open and was featured in a deck tech.  Andrew and John brewed up the ideas for the deck and tested prior to the event, this is Andrew’s post-tournament report.

Sullivan Red at #SCGRICH by Andrew Frank

Here is a brief tournament report from my run at the Richmond Open, as well as some thoughts about the deck.

Andrew’s Deck Tech and Decklist

Day 1

R1 – GB Aggro – (win; 2-0)

This went the way most of the GB matchups did, I killed all the creatures they played and played my own menace creatures, chipped in a lot of damage and burned them out when they stabilized.  In game 2 they were unable to block enough menace creatures to avoid lethal.

1-0

R2 – GB Aggro – (win; 2-0)

A fast start out of the gates and once again killing their creatures as I could made for a relatively easy victory.

2-0

R3 – GB Aggro – (win; 2-1)

In game 1 I swung in with the team, losing almost all of them to put my opponent to 2.  I had just enough life to survive the crackback.  I knew that at that point I just needed to draw any one of a million outs; either a 2 power creature or a burn spell, and sure enough, Shock came to the party to save the day.  Game 2 he made massive creatures with Gearhulk and I couldn’t get them off the board.  Game 3 was a fast start that chipped in enough damage to get him in burn range.

3-0

R4 – 4-color Saheeli (loss; 0-2 vs Caleb Scherer)

Caleb Shearer dismantled me with ease, though the saddest part was melding a Writhing Township only to have it be tapped down by an Elder Deep-Fiend.  It didn’t help that I horribly mis-sideboarded.  After this round John and I discussed better ways to sideboard against the combo; staying aggressive while bringing in Devour in Flames to try and end the game as soon as possible and immediately kill any combo piece.

3-1

R5 – GB Aggro – (win; 2-0)

Ah yes, another GB deck.  I came out aggressively game 1 and eventually melded a Writhing Township to seal victory.  Game 2 I  was able to stick a Chandra and kill all his creatures.  Later Chandra went ultimate, which allowed me to cast both a hasty Skyship Stalker and a Release the Gremlins for 0 to deal 10 damage and finish the match.

4-1

R6 – Jeskai Saheeli – (win; 2-1)

My opponent killed me on turn 4 in game 1 with the combo and only saw Sin Prodder.  Game 2 I used the sideboard advice from John and was able to be aggressive and burn him out with a Flame Lash.  Game 3 I disrupted the combo with instant speed removal and was able to stay the aggressor yet again.

5-1

R7 – Temur Eldrazi – (loss; 0-2)

This deck took me by surprise and his combination of big creatures, removal and Drowner of Hope/Elder Deep-Fiend felt really hard to beat.  I pushed him to a single digit life total in the second game but couldn’t close it out.

5-2

R8 – GB Aggro – (loss; 1-2)

I swiftly took game 1, but lost game 2 as he was able to dump a pile of Gearhulks, Demons and Ballistas on the table.  Game 3 I attacked with a pumped Stalker for exactly lethal as I knew I was going to die the next turn and he had to have removal to win.  Last card in his hand was. . .

Grasp of Darkness.  Better luck next time.

5-3

R9 – UR Dynaovlt – (win; 2-1)

Pressure cooker time.  I knew I had to win this round to make Day 2.  I mulled to 5 in game 1 and my opponent countered everything I was doing and killed me with multiple Gearhulks.  Game 2 I managed to stay ahead of a Dynavolt Tower and killed him with creatures.  Game 3 I used Release the Gremlins to kill his early Tower and he was way behind from then on out.

6-3, Advance!

Day 2

While Day 2 was an unfortunate turnaround from Day 1, it was mostly on my end.  My game simply wasn’t as sharp and had I played better it was very likely we’d have a few more “Ws” on the finishing stat line.

R10 – 4 Color Saheeli (loss; 0-2)

I played poorly and my opponent navigated the round well to exhaust me of my removal before playing the combo in both games.

6-4

R11 – Jeskai Saheeli (loss; 0-2)

This felt similar to the previous round, opponent played well while I did not and was able to combo off on me.

6-5

R12 – GB Aggro (loss; 1-2)

I lost game 1, won game 2, but in game 3 with my opponent at 2 life my deck failed to deliver.

6-6

R13 – Jeskai Saheeli (loss; 0-2)

I kept slow hands with not enough interaction and was combo’d out.  This was a matchup I was hoping to have more time to test prior to the tournament and it showed, something to definitely work on for the future.

6-7

R14 – GB Aggro (win; 2-1)

I was able to use the combination of menace and burn to chip in damage and win despite him getting out Ishkanah with delirium every game.  Devour in Flames and Sin Prodder were especially important, helping me overcome insurmountable odds.

7-7

R15 – 4-color Colossus (loss; 1-2)

Played against my friend Brandon (the other deck tech from Day 1).  I got him to 4 in game 1 by being as aggressive as possible but he was able to get a lethal Colossus out the turn before I could kill him.  Game 2 featured a blazing fast opener and I was able to win through two Fumigates.  Game 3 I kept too slow of a hand and he was able to answer everything before killing me yet again with Colossus.

7-8

OVERALL

Looking back, the deck felt great.  I think there are different directions to take the list and I plan on putting in heavy man hours to get it to where it needs to be.  I think the area that could use the most improvement is the sideboard.  More instant speed removal would help, as well as ways to deal with bigger creatures.  The one-drops can be trimmed down possibly as they are miserable late draws most of the time.

Splashing Black for Glint Sleeve Siphoner and Unlicensed Disintegration could give the deck a bit more gas as well as unconditional removal.  White could be used for Thalia and Authority of the Consuls to combat Saheeli.  Colorless for Reality Smasher and Thought-Knot Seer would open up some aggressive angles.  My concern is the mana may become much worse, taking away from the deck’s advantage of a fluid engine.  Like I said, the cards are on MTGO now so I plan on testing all these configurations.

SIDEBOARDING

This is an overall snapshot of how I was sideboarding, but it will be subject to change as the list evolves.

GB Aggro:

I normally would cut Shocks and Falkenrath Gorgers for the Devour in Flames, Harnessed Lightning and Flame Lash.  Depending on their build I might also find ways in for Destructive Tampering (Ishkanah or Gearhulk), 1 Release the Gremlins (Gearhulk and Ballista) and/or Lightning Axe (lots of high toughness creatures like Mindwrack Demon and Ishkanah).  The plan is to slow down a little and focus more on killing everything they play while you develop your board.  They generally only play one creature at a time for the beginning and middle of the game so you should be able to keep their board clear or at parity so your menace creatures are unblockable.  I normally play creatures in increasing order of importance since if you assume they always have a removal spell for your guys, you want to save the best for last.  Generally this means I play Sin Prodders before Garrisons but that can be build specific.  Killing Winding Constrictor on first sight is of the utmost importance; he’s their number one card to run away with a game if left unchecked.  As the game progresses focus less on burning their creatures and more on burning them, or holding back burn for a final push.

Saheeli Combo:

This is where the deck could use the most help.  On paper it feels like this should be a good matchup, and it is very possible I played the matchup incorrectly, as I always struggled with the Twin matchup in Modern.  In general the plan is to hold back instant speed removal and use sorcery speed removal on your turn to dodge the combo.  You also want to go faster than them to put them on the defensive if possible.  There is the normal combo deck tension of wanting to hold up an answer but also develop your board.  My rule is generally if you are playing to not lose you will not win.

I cut the Harnessed Lightning and Goblin Dark-Dwellers for Devour in Flames, Lightning Axe, and Flame Lash.  Since some of the decks run Shock I often considered cutting some number of Sin Prodders for Collective Defiance and/or Release the Gremlins (for their Gearhulks).  One thought I’ve been toying with for this matchup is to create a madness package post-board with Fiery Temper and Lightning Axe (upping numbers on the latter).  This would give the deck a little bit more instant-speed interaction and reach, while also being able to deal with both halves of the combo and synergizing with Insolent Neonate.  Implement of Combustion could be another option since it is an early play, can be held up easily and is uncounterable damage to break up the combo (unless they have Disallow).  Still messing with this matchup and I feel if this can be improved then the deck will be strongly positioned in the meta.

Control:

Similar gameplan to Saheeli combo, you want to go faster and bring in all the burn.  You transform more into a burn deck and try to get under them before they can start countering your spells and removing your creatures.

Mardu Vehicles:

I haven’t played against vehicles yet, but on paper we have a lot of control elements to meddle with their tempo and can be transformational post-board.  I would probably cut the Gorgers, Neonates and maybe Dark-Dwellers for Destructive Tampering, Release the Gremlins, Flame Lash, Harnessed Lightning, Lightning Axe and possibly Collective Defiance.

Thanks for reading!

– Andrew Frank

Lighting Up Grand Prix Louisville

Lighting Up Grand Prix Louisville

If there’s one thing that’s resonated the most with me throughout my 22 off and on years of playing Magic, it’s that you have to put yourself in position to win.  Writing this blog and doing a Magic Podcast has been great, but it can be disheartening sometimes when the results don’t come with the effort.  Talking with a lot of high level players, I often hear the common phrase of “well the pros test more than we do” but at least for me I know that’s barely true.  I usually put in several hours a night of play or research, play in events almost every weekend, and have a team that is similarly minded.  I want to make the Pro Tour, and I know part of that is playing even when you don’t want to.

That to me is the biggest step towards trying to make it work.  I’ve felt like giving up the game many times, as the cost and time continually build up, but unless you put yourself in the event and put the time in everything else involved is a waste.

Thankfully this weekend I was rewarded for that effort.  I took Legacy Burn to a 12-3 finish good for 34th place out of 1600 (tie breakers with about 15 other people).  I made some decisions with my list based on testing that paid off handily, and was able to navigate some extremely challenging games from interactions that came about through that practice.

Here was the list that I played:

Burn – by John Galli, 34th GP Louisville (Visual View)

4 Goblin Guide
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Grim Lavamancer

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Rift Bolt
4 Chain Lightning
4 Lava Spike
4 Price of Progress
4 Fireblast
2 Searing Blaze

3 Sulfuric Vortex

3 Arid Mesa
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire
9 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Ensnaring Bridge
3 Smash to Smithereens
2 Exquisite Firecraft
2 Searing Blaze
1 Pyrostatic Pillar

The most notable omission here is Monastery Swiftspear.  Current lists you’ll see online are about 50/50 on running him, and it was formerly in my list.  I still think the card is great, helping to race combo matchups and occasionally being quite large on turns where you’re able to “combo” off with burn spells.  But in testing in the current metagame, I often just wanted either less creatures or the ability to interact more with other creature decks.  Grim Lavamancer provides that ability as well as being a thorn in Miracles side when they can’t find a spot removal spell or a Terminus.  Starting a game with a turn 1 Lavamancer is often a nail in the coffin versus some decks like Elves, D&T, and occasionally Delver.  He also is a deterrent to the natural gameplan of those decks, forcing them to make time delay decisions that give you the critical window to burn them out.

Searing Blaze is another card that I ended up playing on the weekend for the same reasons.  It can be a liability against Miracles (sometimes), and non-creature combo, but matchups like Delver and Shardless are very close without it and you don’t have the digging power like they do to get out of difficult spots.

Sulfuric Vortex is a concession to Miracles, it’s the number one card they don’t want to see out of Burn and it’s one of the more difficult cards for them to both counter and remove since it has a three cmc.  Playing three means you can draw it fairly reliably and possibly multiples, but also not enough that you have two in your hand very often.  I boarded it out a lot on the weekend, but it’s still too powerful in my opinion to omit all-together as it’s repeatable damage and shuts down important cards like Jitte.  Usually against most creature decks without a Jitte you’ll just replace it post-board with better options.

The sideboard was where most of the work was put in.  My most common losses at local and bigger tournaments were to the unfair combo decks (Storm, Reanimator, Dredge, Belcher).  Sometimes as a Legacy Burn pilot you have to just ignore them, hoping you dodge and instead have an insanely good setup for the rest of the field.  But this isn’t good for a 15 round Grand Prix.  I knew I’d run into those matchups, and I knew that getting a good finish with Burn meant I couldn’t afford that loss when I might have another loss due to play mistakes or close games elsewhere.

I tested option after option here to find what worked best.  Mindbreak Trap is functional against Storm, Belcher, and to an extent Reanimator (unless they just Entomb > Reanimate), but it’s still conditional on your opponent’s play and not an answer for Dredge.  Furthermore, Storm players can Cabal Therapy it out of your hand and then go off, which is commonly what they’ll do if they expect or probe to see resistance.  Pyrostatic Pillar is good versus Storm and other important decks (Alluren, various creature decks or decks that are slower than you, etc), but Storm can Abrupt Decay it, Cabal Therapy it, it’s too slow for Belcher, and does nothing against the graveyard decks.  I included one in my board for its importance otherwise and because some of the pros were supposed to be on Alluren.

Faerie Macabre is fairly decent against all of these strategies except for Belcher, and is uncounterable (not to mention a surprise), but I really wanted something that could both solve the problem decks as well as slow them down if they have an answer.  With Macabre sometimes they can just rebuild depending on the deck, or you don’t get enough cards to stop them / finish them off with your burn.  Relic of Progenitus and Grafdigger’s Cage both have their applications as well as the former being a consideration against Tarmogoyf / Deathrite Shaman decks, but are usually too slow vs the actual broken combo turns.  When Reanimator puts an Iona or Griselbrand into play on turn 1, that Relic is looking real real bad.

This ultimately led to trying out Leyline of the Void.  The two big risks with it are that you could mulligan yourself out of a game in order to find one and that they could have an answer like Nature’s Claim or Reverent Silence to deal with it.  But it can be played immediately even when they’re on the play, it delays their gameplan, and it requires them to both have the specific answer card as well as the proper lands to play that answer.  And both of those particular answer cards net the Burn player life, which can be a problem for them when trying to close the door.

Ensnaring Bridge falls into this same axis of defense.  It’s a lynchpin to putting up a fight versus Show and Tell, Eldrazi, Merfolk, Tarmo-Delver decks, Reanimator, and anything else that wants to throw giant bodies at you.  It’s fairly easy for Burn to dump most of its hand by turn 3 or 4 if it wants to, and many decks post-board won’t have too much in the way of artifact destruction.  Sure there will be some Abrupt Decays and the like, but you often stretch that kind of removal thin.  And when the bridge lands they have to have the answer pretty quick before you draw into more lethal burn while their creatures do nothing.  I don’t bring it in versus decks with reach (UR Delver; Lightning Bolt), but otherwise it’s a powerful tool that many don’t even realize exists for Burn.

I felt like the current meta was a good time for Smash to Smithereens, and my teammates convinced me to play a third copy which was definitely the right call for Louisville.  Chalice of the Void is one of the toughest cards for Burn to deal with (although certainly not as game over as some think), so to have something capable of dealing with it and at a penalty to the opponent is big game.  It also doubles as another Searing Blaze effect in the D&T and Deathblade matchups where your opponent’s sole gameplan is trying to get a Jitte or Batterskull online versus you.  Shardless, MUD, Painter, and other archetypes also provide good targets, so the card ends up being quite useful depending on what’s popular.  Eldrazi was the biggest threat I was concerned with, where a chalice on 1 can let them end the game fast if you don’t have an answer the turn after they play it.

Team Mox Testing Tournament

On the Thursday before the Grand Prix, my team (Mox Mania ; Madison, WI) had organized a big Legacy tournament.  We normally have $5 weekly events at our shop, but we put the word out for this one to try and make it more legitimate practice.  We ended up with 32 people, and covered most of the major archetypes outside of Lands (no one on hand had a tabernacle 😛 ).  Between that tournament and the week prior I didn’t do very well, going 2-6.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have experience with the matchups or that I felt they were awful, but I was trying various cards out and our shop is competitive so it was just how the cookie crumbled.

Truthfully, I was pretty happy after the tournament.  It had been a learning experience.  I figured out that I was taking some poor lines in certain situations and that some board cards that I had been really attached to in the past weren’t working out properly.  Legacy is such an easy format to have your “pet deck” that you believe in so much and don’t want to change very often that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes.  I noticed this the week prior in testing, and continually online leading up to Louisville.

I then used that information to improve.  This is easy to say and easy to read in an article, but I encourage anyone who plays competitively to keep reminding yourself of the importance of it.  It’s one of my biggest flaws as a Magic player at times.  We all think that we are good at this game and know what’s best, but listening to others, processing that information with your own views, and taking seen info and applying it to the future is critical to doing better.  It also didn’t hurt to play constantly leading up to the event as just having things be second nature in a complicated format is a tangible advantage.

The Grand Prix

Our crew left on Friday at 9am, two cars from Madison, one flying in from Seattle, and all total 10 people to arrive at a comfortable Air B&B townhouse in Louisville.  I had never used Air B&B before, and after this weekend I hope to use it everytime.  For $85 per person which covered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, we had a sweet two-story townhouse with full amenities and a 2 minute walk from the grocery store.  Nerding it up to the fullest was our game, board games and Magic till 2am was our shame.

7am the alarm goes off, my housemate and I start making some breakfast for the early risers.  I had two byes but I wake up early for work everyday so it was no sweat to chip in and start the morning with the usual rhythm.  Piles of eggs, sausage patties, granola, bananas, and coffee, everyone was going to have fuel for their best game at this tournament.

Round 1 & 2:  Bye.  That was easy.

Round 3:  BUG Delver

A forecast of the days to come vs Blue decks, where the play / draw is quite different.  On the play you get to lead with Grim Lavamancer or Goblin Guide blind versus everyone, while on the draw you’re usually hoping to have a Rift Bolt so you can play around Daze and deter them from dropping a Delver or Deathrite Shaman, letting you deploy your creatures on the 2nd turn.

Playing around counters is so important versus Delver.  It’s a constant stream of thought during every turn, making sure you keep in mind what each list usually has.  Daze, Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm, Force of Will.  Brainstorm / Ponder into these.  It’s just so easy for them, and so hard for you.  Oh, they got to Git Probe you and now know your lines?  Happy Day.  Too bad you’re still gonna suck down this Exquisite Firecraft at 4 life in game 3.

3-0

Round 4:  Dredge

I google my opponent as I walk to the table.  He has 5-6 quality finishes with Legacy Dredge, so I know it’s going to be an uphill battle.  Let’s hope this sideboard tech pays off.

Game 1 I keep a hand that would be loose versus just about anyone.  I don’t know what happened.  I just found out my opponent is on Dredge and yet my brain glosses over that thought and waits for the demolition crew to arrive.  Sure enough, they do, he goes off Turn 2 and I scoop it up while he counts his Bridge triggers.  Nice guy, but sorry papa don’t have time for that.

Game 2 I open with a great Burn hand.  But no Leyline or Bridge.  Mull.  Mull again.  ANNNND Mull again.  Maybe this plan wasn’t that hot.  But wait, this 4 card hand has Double Leyline, a Guide, and a Mountain.  Rolling Stones Start Me Up starts playing in my head, let’s do this thing.  My opponent has no answer and folds like a house of cards.

Game 3, similar but different.  I see my opponent furiously boarding in cards.  I’m concerned he has Nature’s Claim, but what can I do but stay to the plan.  I have to mull to 4 again but have Leyline, Bridge, Mountain, Bolt.  Sure.  Turn 1 he Claim’s my Leyline.  Uh Oh.  He starts to get his engine going but I’m able to rip a few lands and get the Bridge down.  Then the Burn starts flowing and the rest is history.  Last words “I never thought I’d lose to Burn at this tournament”.  Hasta La Vista Baby.

4-0

Round 5:  Sneak & Show

I’m paired against East-West Bowl Pro Mark Jacobson.  We have some small chit-chat and he starts going on about how he’s really a good guy despite some maniacal article from E-Fro.  Alright bud, I don’t even know the article but glhf.

Game 1 is uneventful, he lands a turn 3 Emrakul and I have barely scratched his life total.  This matchup stinks and while I know it’s a “big” deck in Legacy I didn’t expect it to be too popular as its numbers in the last few years have dipped.

Game 2 he plays a turn 2 Show and Tell off of Ancient Tomb and I put an Ensnaring Bridge in play versus his Griselbrand.  He pays some life to draw cards and I wish I had kept my Sulfuric Vortexes in to prevent him from continually reloading.  He gets a swing in, I’m able to get him back down to 5 life, but just don’t have enough left in the tank to finish the job.  Pyroblast can be helpful in this matchup (except against Sneak Attack), but I just didn’t have room this tournament.  It’s Legacy, you have to make your concessions sometimes.  Also Ashen Rider is way too narrow, so please don’t run that card unless your meta is just infested with this deck.

4-1

Round 6:   Shardless BUG

Game 1 I keep a one lander on the draw that looks like pure gasoline if I can draw out of it within a few turns (three playable 1 CMC cards).  I don’t draw another land for 9 turns and my opponent glacially nickel and dimes my life total away.

Game 2 we spar for what seems like an hour, trading card for card, turn after turn, until finally I have no choice but to “go for it” on a lethal Fireblast that he has the second copy of Force of Will for.

4-2

Round 7:  Reanimator

Another chance to see if the sideboard tech train keeps on choo-choo’ing.  Game 1 Griseldaddy says hello on Turn 1.  Hair grows longer on chest.

Game 2 I mull to 4 and Leyline him out of the game.

Game 3, mull to 5, Leyline, he plays 3 Faithless Lootings, shakes his head, dies.

Hot damn this sideboard is good.  Some Reanimator boards have hate, this guy had none.  Lesson Learned for the future.

5-2

Round 8:  Bant Stoneblade / Deathblade

I’m not really sure what my opponent is playing, but it’s not too hard to figure out the things that matter.  He has Deathrite Shaman, Stoneforge Mystic, True Name Nemesis, and Umezawa’s Jitte.  All of his cards are annoying and I try to put up a fight for a while but he’s able to get in an attack with Jitte at 4 life and it’s a wrap after that.

Game 2 is more of the same, except this time it’s another “go for it” Fireblast versus Force of Will.  I don’t try to play into Forces, but sometimes you have no choice.

Man, where is all this D&T and Miracles that I expected?

5-3

Round 9:  Belcher (Ryan Solave, Top 8 GP Indianapolis Competitor)

Normally I’m the bigger guy at the table but my opponent this round looks like a younger version of the Hulk.  He has a beanie cap on and a snide grin and doesn’t look like he’s messing around.  Turn 1 he git probes me, and I never see my turn.  Seriously, this is the end of Day 1?

I have nothing for Belcher and I’m fine with that.  It’s a fringe matchup and you have to pick a deck to just be stone cold to in Legacy, so this one is my poison.  Sure, Pyrostatic Pillar would be great if I could play it, but Game 2 is a repeat of Game 1, only this time Goblin Guide gets to grin while 14 of his kin get put into play on the other side of the table.  Play Mindbreak Trap if you really care about this matchup.  Fortunately for me before my opponent swings for lethal he asks me if I care about playing Day 2.  I tell him yes, and he can see I’m pretty bummed so he concedes to let me continue on.

Sweet!  He elaborates, telling me about how he crushed the Modern side events at the last GP and walked away with a couple of cases worth of booster packs and would rather try for that then grind Day 2 at X-3.  Definitely understandable, and a much appreciated gift.

Ryan Solave, I solute you.  I hope that karma comes back ten-fold after what happened with the rest of my tournament.

6-3

We did it! (sort of).  Only 1 of the other people in our 10 person group made day 2 (Zac Forshee ; Storm).  Yikes.  Thankfully everyone is still in good spirits and we go have a quality dinner in downtown Louisville.  This is followed by Super Smash Melee and Cube, mostly going strong into the wee hours of the night as I snooze in the downstairs den.

Day 2

Round 10:  Goblin Stompy

Mountain, Chrome Mox, Exile Simian Spirt Guide, Seething Song, Chandra, Torch of Defiance.  Wow.  That’s a nice Turn 1 sir, I’d shake your hand if I wasn’t about to unravel that opener like it’s my job.  Goblin Guide into Searing Blaze for his Turn 2 creature and redirect to Chandra makes him virtually hellbent against my full grip of photon torpedoes.  Bombs away, let’s play again.

Game 2 I Smash to Smithereens his Chalice and Blaze his Goblin Rabblemaster.  Part of me is really happy, part of me is really sad.  This guy is kind of my hero with these cards, and afterwards we have a good talk about our love for Red and the beauty of a life full of Mountains.

7-3

Round 11:  Painter’s Servant

Sweet, another cool Red deck.  Also another one that is quite vulnerable to Searing Blaze and Smash to Smithereens, albeit the combo is still scary.  Game 1 he gets it online early and activates Grindstone, but sadly for him it’s too late.  My Grim Lavamancer exiles the last two cards in my yard and his last two life points.  Game 2 he makes a nice play with Painter calling blue followed by Red Elemental Blast on my Lightning Bolt, but he is buried by extra sideboard Blazes and Smashes.  He admits this is a bad matchup, and it certainly seemed so most of the times I’ve played it.  Perfect example why Burn can be great in Legacy, people just aren’t prepared for it since it isn’t on the radar.

8-3

Round 12:  Infect

In Modern, Burn has a fairly good advantage vs Infect despite the matchup still being close because of how powerful some of their openers are.  In Legacy that advantage mostly disappears as Infect gains better counterspells and a more reliable clock, so you really have to assume the control role entirely as the Burn pilot.  This match was one where my 3 maindeck Grim Lavamancers and 2 Searing Blazes (over Swiftspears) paid off, as I was able to get a Turn 1 Lavamancer out both games.  Each games is hair-raising, I have to fireblast myself out of lands in the first just to stay alive and get his last Infect creature off the board, and game 2 I punt viciously three times in a row while Adrian Sullivan watches over my opponent’s shoulder.

It was especially bad when he swings in with an Inkmoth Nexus, and instead of waiting for him to use a pump spell so I can Blaze in response, I just fire off the Blaze.  I mutter swears under my breath (temper, temper) and try to pull myself together.  No John, you don’t want to be “THAT GUY“. I tap the rest of my lands and cast my second copy of Searing Blaze, knowing he has a Daze in hand but not having any other option other than lose.

He doesn’t Daze.  What? “I brainstormed and put it back on top of my library” says my opponent.  Hallelujah, praise be to the gods of fire.

9-3

Round 13:  Shardless BUG

My opponent is on the play for game 1, but I have a solid opener of Lavamancer, Bolts, Fireblast, etc.  I’m able to cast Price of Progress for 6 after waiting for him to tap out, and he’s not able to recover later from it.

Game 2 he has a 2/3 Goyf with Instant/Sorcery in the yard and he’s on the backfoot.  I play a fetchland for my third land, immediately crack it, and then realize I’m a dummy.  The Searing Blaze I meant to play is now no longer going to kill the Goyf, and instead I have to ram a Goblin Guide into said Goyf followed by Blazing it off the board.  I get him down to 1, and then he fades death three turns in a row before getting a Batterskull and battering my skull in with it.

Game 3 my play is again fairly loose, but I’m able to work out a spot where I can cast a bolt and then two Fireblasts, the second of which can’t be Forced because he’s at 1 life after the first Blast.  He looks at it and sees this, shakes his head and extends the hand.

10-3

Round 14:  UR Delver (Emma Handy)

By far my most interesting match of the entire tournament.  UR Delver was a tough matchup for me in testing despite one thinking that the deck that has burn spells in place of draw spells would be more efficient.  Game 1 I am put into a hole early and am forced to bolt a Swiftspear to keep things from getting out of control.  Emma has a good board against me farther into the game with Stormchaser Mage and a second Swiftspear, and a card in hand.  I have Sulfuric Vortex, Fireblast, Bolt.  Prior to that turn I had been thinking through when to land Vortex if at all since it’s such a liability in this matchup, and fortunately I’m able to do it at just the right moment so I can Fireblast on my turn, have her untap, and die on upkeep with me at 1 life.  Did I mention Fireblast was a broken card?

Game 2 I take the initiative, landing early Guides and Eidolons to quickly put her down to 13 life.  She’s able to crawl back into it a bit, but about midway through the game I look over the cards in my hand and realize that I have her dead in my sights.  I know she has a Daze that was revealed off Goblin Guide, so I extend a Grim Lavamancer into it to draw it out.  I can still pay the “one” for Daze, but she also knows it will cut me off a bolt that turn.  She does Daze, I pay for it, and then later am able to play around the rest of her counters so that I can finish her last 4 life points with an Exquisite Firecraft.

We talk for a while after as she mentions she used to play Burn a lot and overall both of us seemed to enjoy the back and forth of the match.  Definitely one of those that turns the treadmill up to 11.

11-3

Round 15:  Shardless Alluren (Pascal Maynard)

Here it was for all the marbles.  The combo deck I heard the pros would be on, versus a famous pro, my little tugboat of confidence pushing along.  I don’t get that nervous anymore, but my hands were definitely shaking during this match.  Game 1 Pascal is on the play and I of course don’t know he’s on Alluren yet.  I see some Shardless cards and think sweet this isn’t too bad.  Then he plays a Turn 4 Alluren.  Shit.

He tries to play a Shardless Agent.  In hindsight I should have been more patient and waited for Cavern Harpy, but alas, Bolt, Bolt, Fireblast, GG.

Game 2, I think I have a great hand as I’m able to resolve both a Turn 2 Eidolon and a Turn 3 Pyrostatic Pillar.  But then he starts to build an army of creatures, beating me down with Deathrite Shaman activations, a Parasitic Strix, and holding the fort with Glint-Nest Crane.  I’m forced to either Fireblast or Firecraft the Strix (can’t remember which) and then realize I’m still dead to a few more Shaman activations.

Game 3.  Please.  Don’t put my fire out just yet.

I draw my opening seven.

Goblin Guide, Eidolon of the Great Revel, Eidolon of the Great Revel, Fireblast, Fireblast, Mountain, Fetch.  YES.  My draw the next turn is a Grim Lavamancer.  Pascal is immediately on the backfoot, only being able to deal with my Eidolon to see the second one immediately replace it.  He is able to play Alluren.  He goes for the combo. . .

Activate Grim Lavamancer, Bolt you, Fireblast, Fireblast.  Take 13 Homie.

12-3, 34th Place.  Tie breakers for X-3’s went all the way from 12th – 36th place, so unfortunately my early losses bumped me just out of top 32, but this tournament was about way more than that.  It was about effort, concentration, working through every difficult situation to put Burn on the map where it needs to be again.  It was about being able to do something like this when no one around you thinks you can, when every odd maker is stacked up against you.  This one is for the underdog.  This one is for our Readers, our Podcast listeners.

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains

– Red Deck Winning

Props:

  • Kendrick, for driving us 7 hours without complaint.  Your turbo button around turns was great, and you’re always an intelligent ear of wisdom to bounce thoughts off of
  • Colin, because shorts rule, winter drools.  Respectful, cheerful, and ready to Flickerwisp my Sulfuric Vortexes whenever I get too cocky
  • William, team draft homie and a perfect knack for dropping F bombs at the exact appropriate time to make all of us crack up
  • Kyle, team draft homie part deux, keeping our crew looking stylish and helping me break both EDH and Modern in one car ride
  • Hannah, my encyclopedia for Legacy questions, Super Smash button masher extraordinaire, and good at reverberating chairs when excited
  • Matt, the go-to guy when I need to know if my play is suspect.  Teaching me to play faster, better, and have a no bullshit acceptance for what’s good / not good.  Team is much better because of you
  • Pavle, a smart young mage on the rise.  I see a lot of my early years with Magic in you, and I mean that in a good way.  You’re putting yourself in a position to move towards better days, and winning at life too.  Cheers to your approaching graduation and quality Chicago employment.
  • Zac, if there’s a question about Storm, and what it can or can’t do, you will know the answer.  The playtesting was helpful, the Pike’s Place coffee was clutch, and I’m very jelly of your Seattle residency
  • Brendan, despite being able to derail any facebook post at the drop of a hat like the best of trolls, we always seem to get along well in person.  You always are fun, relaxed, and able to switch gears about things which I appreciate as that’s usually how I try to approach life.  That hoody doe
  • Donald, we lit fam.

Slops:

  • Kentucky Expo Center, your bathroom situation is ridiculous.  Please add extra troughs next time you decide to host a tournament and good god spray some febreeze or something.
  • Judges, when I ask where I can find standings, please don’t talk about me behind my back right in front of me and within ear shot, help your players.  I don’t care if you put up a sign that you think is obvious that no one can see.  To the other judges that didn’t do that, you’re cool
  • The guy next to me in round 14.  Bro, showers are not optional.
  • My round 6.  Has some good conversation with me, beats me, and then asks me if I could tell he was sick.  What?  Dude come on man.  Please don’t make GP Plague Great Again.

 

Quelling the Conversation – Mono Red with Eldritch Moon

hanweirgarrisonwallpaper

Quelling the Conversation – Mono Red with Eldritch Moon

No one said this was going to be easy.

After winning two pro tours, Mono Red was on top of the world despite still being dogged by many pros for being a simplistic deck.  Whether they liked it or not, Red Aggro was a competitive option that had to be respected as a Tier 1 archetype like it has been at many times in Magic’s history.

But that all changed with Shadows over Innistrad.  Shadows brought with it powerful Green and White cards that supplemented the already great suite from Dragons of Tarkir and BFZ block, and Mono Red’s run clearly came to an end.  Results dropped like flies, and on our Red Deck Podcast we scoured all over the web and with listeners to try and find a sign of hope.  I tested with my team, Mox Mania, at the beginning of the format with just about every conceivable variant I could think of against all of the new Tier 1 strategies, but there just wasn’t a build that could stand up to everything at a reasonable level.

Part of this was the renewed strength of Green, White, and Black, but the other part was what we lost.  Lightning Strike, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and Goblin Rabblemaster to name a few were so good at what they could do.  Instead, we received mediocre and unplayable replacements.  We received tease cards like Sin Prodder where it looked like an excellent option, only to have us reminded quickly that Reflector Mage and company still run the show.  And that’s not to even say that cards like Prodder are bad news, in fact to this day I still believe there are proper shells for him, but ultimately there are many drawbacks which can’t be overlooked.  In a way, it’s a blessing because it forces us as Red players to scrutinize the cards more carefully and make sure that our overall build makes sense.

So Whats Changed, And Why Are We Playing Red?

If you play with or take one look at a deck like Bant Company or GW Tokens, it’s easy to see why it’s appealing.  Every card in each of those decks is powerful on its own, late game engines that run into infinity.  I might love Red cards, but as a longtime Magic player that has wanted to be on the Pro Tour since he was a kid, I’m not ignorant of what else is available.  Cards like Reflector Mage and Collected Company are not only sweet, they’re truly impressive from a game standpoint.  For this reason, whenever I do testing I always make sure to run through each of the Tier 1 and 2 options as well, just to be sure I know what they’re doing and what they’re capable of.  This is obvious to most high level players, but maybe not so much to most Red players or most casual players on the cusp of their tournament career.

Approaching SCG Regionals, people (including many Red mage comrades), largely believed Red was still very dead.  We saw the likes of Secret Burn by Max McVety (SCG Invitational Humans winner) in the first Open with Eldritch Moon to try and give us hope, but even he said the deck wasn’t great in an ongoing Reddit conversation.  I tested the deck a lot, along with friends, and while it still attacked from that all important axis that is hard to fight, it felt like something was missing as the games were still too close and didn’t seem to have any leverage points.  Also Dromoka’s Command and Ojutai’s Command were truly punishing.  It was clear though that McVety’s list wasn’t finished being tuned, so I tried a number of things along with other people who are still working on it.  I haven’t shelved the concept entirely, but it needs some tweaking.

And playing Bant is easy game.  Who wouldn’t want to play Sylvan Advocate into Reflector Mage into Collected Company into Spell Queller and sign a match slip.  Or as the PT showed us, emerge an Elder Deep-Fiend into an Emrakul and take someone else’s turn.  I love Magic, and I won’t deny that this stuff is cool, and is pretty amazing to behold.

But damn son, I want my lunch break.  And I want my opponent dead now.

Origins Red was where this needed to start.  Mono Red Aggro doesn’t just show up as an easy option.  The cards look like crap, and anyone who plays at a competitive level sees a Dragon Fodder and laughs at why someone who wants to win a tournament would use their two mana on that versus something like Duskwatch Recruiter.  The answer is synergy, free win potential (FWP), and playing without both a target on your head as well as capitalizing upon decks that do have one.  I was mostly planning to play Red for Regionals anyway, but there was a chance I would borrow something else.  Seeing the PT results breathed a bit of fresh life into things, as it looked like the format would get even slower.  New set with people trying new ideas combined with a slowdown in the format is always the perfect time for Red to strike.

Eldritch Moon also brought us some new weapons, and both their appearance and testing deemed them to me to be real.  That testing, our recent Podcast guest Austin Casey’s build, and Todd Anderson’s work, all made me a believer that there was room here.  We could get underneath Bant and GW, we could control the creatures on the board vs Boss Humans, and we could race the Emrakul decks.

The secret though was in playing style.  Austin mentioned some great points on the Podcast about baiting your opponent into removing or countering your early plays so that you could capitalize with a later play (such as Chandra, Garrison, or Thunderbreak).  Additionally, he talked about being observant of your opponents’ behaviors, their open mana as any good player would do, and just “taking a turn off” when you need to.  Force them to play their Queller early or on something irrelevant, or their Avacyn when you simply pass turn to coax them into believing their advanced board state is the route to victory.  These kind of situations came up a lot during the tournament, and I was able to punish my opponents as a result with the plethora of burn spells available to take down a Queller and get my original spell back or lead them into tapping out and then slamming an Impetuous Devils to make them reel back in their seat.  You also simply start the game before they do, leading with one drops into burn backup while they have a turn 1 tap land.  Classic Burn vs Midrange battle.

So here’s where I ended up for the tournament:

MTG Goldfish Visual View

Red Deck Wins by John Galli; 6-2 for 13th Place SCG Regionals (Milwaukee, WI)

3 Village Messenger
3 Lightning Berserker
3 Zurgo Bellstriker
4 Falkenrath Gorger
4 Abbot of Keral Keep
4 Hanweir Garrison
4 Impetuous Devils
1 Goblin Dark-Dwellers

4 Galvanic Bombardment
4 Incendiary Flow
4 Exquisite Firecraft

2 Hanweir Battlements
20 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Thunderbreak Regent
4 Draconic Roar
1 Mountain
2 Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh
2 Act of Treason
2 Twin Bolt

I mentioned drawing on Origins earlier, and that was indeed where this began.  We already knew Abbot and one drops were good, especially when backed up by a similar suite of Burn spells.  Being able to clear the road or have finishing reach was of the utmost importance, and this was a big reason why I have the full 12 Burn spells.

Galvanic Bombardment might seem out of place in a field of x/3s, but there are still very relevant targets like Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Duskwatch Recruiter, any of the Mono White Humans creatures, Hedron Crawler, etc, etc.  And since we’re only playing 12 Burn spells, getting spell mastery for Fiery Impulse isn’t easy, nor does that have the option of occasionally killing an Avacyn or Ishkanah as the game gets late. Galvanic Bombardment is also great at leveraging the deck’s tempo advantage, allowing you to double spell often and combine with other Burn to get a truly significant threat off the table.  There will just be many situations where you have three mana and want to both play a 1 or 2 drop along with holding up Galvanic Bombardment to kill the creature they play on their turn.  These types of situations can’t be overlooked, as they’re how you beat decks looking to overpower you past the first few turns.

The other historical place I looked was one of my own decklists.  Back when I started this website, I was on a tear with a Mono Red Aggro build during the heyday of Junk Rites (another grindy midrange deck), Mono White Aggro, and Jund.  I put up a huge amount of tournament wins with that deck, featured in my original article.  While the cards today aren’t the same, the curve and land count could be relied upon, and a lot of the new technology mimic’d the old ones well.  In fact, while cloning is not usually wise, the new cards were finally close enough that in this instance I think it made good sense.  Impetuous Devils is absolutely no Hellrider, but he still hits harder than most Red cards can, and he often can be a removal spell for you too, which numbers wise brings you up to 16 in the deck if you’re counting him.  Chunking your opponent for a few points of damage and potentially clearing their Sylvan Advocate or Gideon + Token is a strong play.

Reckless Bushwhacker + Dragon Fodder is the most notable omission from my list, and this is where Impetuous Devils and Village Messenger came in.  Devils accomplishes much of what Reckless Bushwhacker + Dragon Fodder want to do, but it does it in one card.  Both sets of cards also have similar weaknesses, such as Thalia, Queller, and instant speed removal (albeit Devils is worse versus the latter).  But if we’re looking at these cards truthfully, we’re only playing them when we can capitalize on our opponents plays, and that’s often when they’re tapped out or exhausted on available resources.  Both Reckless Bushwhacker + Dragon Fodder and Devils are the kill strokes, so you need to make sure they’re going to do that job before you decide to play them at all.

Village Messenger is not as obvious.  The main reason I wanted to play him was due to the interest in staying hyper-aggressive game 1.  In my old list, I had Rakdos Shredfreak and Ash Zealot.  We don’t have any two drops like that anymore, so Village Messenger fills the role, and when flipped can be very irritating for your opponent.  In a format where many opponents are playing tap lands and a plethora of three drops but not as many twos, Village Messenger actually can flip a good amount.  And in the matchups where he’s bad, or where you’re on the draw, you can simply side him out (which is often the gameplan).  But most importantly, he brought the list up to 13 one drops, which is just 1 card shy of the probability threshold of getting a one drop in your opening hand the “majority” of the time.  He’s probably the most questionable card in the list, and I could see cutting him to go a little bigger, but he filled his role appropriately on the day.

Hanweir Garrison is a fascinating card.  Yes, he’s like Goblin Rabblemaster in design, but he’s also so much different.  He’s a 2/3 in a world of 2/3s, so he actually helps you block sometimes (or simply attack when you wouldn’t have been able to with a Rabblemaster), and his tokens despite attacking the turn they come in don’t have to later on, so you can conserve your resources if they manage to get Papa Garrison off the table early.

What’s most significant though is the Meld ability.  I found myself in a few situations in the tournament where I was essentially dead.  No way to win the game unless I lucksacked into 3-4 burn spells which wasn’t a likely scenario with my opponent having the advantage in the game.  But Melding Garrison with Battlements COULD win me the game in those spots, as a 7/4 trampler who makes huge creatures can overcome a lot of board states that the Tier 1 decks present.  And it happened, during a match with Bant Coco where he had 3-4 creatures on the board but I drew into the Battlements I was banking on and unleashed the monster.  Yes, all of his sides are still Reflector Mage-able, but that’s just a one turn delay and the argument of “dies to removal” doesn’t invalidate completely the power a card may have.

hanweirthewritingtownship

Sideboarding

The sideboard is mostly straight-forward.  The Thunderbreak + Draconic Roar + Land package was borrowed from Todd Anderson’s articles, and is essentially the go big plan post-board vs Bant CoCo and to a lesser extent GW Tokens (it’s still correct to stay a smidge faster vs Tokens).  You cut Village Messengers and Lightning Berserkers (as outlined by Austin on our Podcast), and then if you’re on the draw you can cut some or all of the Impetuous Devils.  On the play, I’d trim on some combination of Garrisons, Abbots, and Devils depending on how you feel or your opponent’s list. Devils and Garrison as mentioned before aren’t great versus Reflector Mage and Spell Queller, and since they’re towards the top of your curve they’re where you’re forced to make some concessions.

The go big package is really nice versus them, because while you still want to maintain your speed advantage (and don’t be afraid to mulligan for a more aggressive keep if you need to), Roar and Thunderbreak allow you to clear more blockers and present ones of your own.  If they are able to break serve with you, Thunderbreak generally puts a halt to this, and allows you to start swinging the pendulum back towards you being the aggressor.  Their fliers are smaller, so it then becomes a battle of you drawing burn spells versus them drawing CoCos and Mages, of which you have far more burn spells.  Selfless Spirit is probably the biggest concern in these spots, so make sure to prioritize killing him early when possible.

There’s many games with the go big plan where you just overrun them too.  One drop into two drop or burn spell, into Garrison, into Thunderbreak is pretty impossible for most of the decks in Standard to deal with.  Several of my Bant opponents saw this and were so far behind that even a good CoCo hit couldn’t get them out of the hot water.  A Dromoka’s Command is never too clean versus Thunderbreak, and the 3 damage usually matters when it’s coming after your early aggression.  I’m considering moving the package to the maindeck, but there’s still a big part of me that wants to stay as aggressive as possible game 1, as this is critical to beating the new Pro Tour decks and keeping pace with Boss Humans.

The sideboard is rounded out with pairs of other cards.  Act of Treason helps you against any deck that durdles for a while before landing one big roadblock, whether it be a delirium Emrakul deck or a Worldbreaker Ramp deck.  Certainly not great against Ishkanah, but there will always be decks in any meta where this type of effect is wanted.

Twin Bolt is for Aggro mirrors, most notably Humans where they might get ahead of you onboard but are a deck full of X/1s.  It’s also just nice to have another instant speed Burn spell and one that is inherently setup to create 2-for-1s as well as go to the face.  You may even want to bring it in versus GW Tokens, but that would be very build dependent and also dependent on how you prefer to play the matchup.

Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh is for decks that barely interact with you.  Non-Red ramping decks (or even some Red ones if you can bait out a Kozilek’s Return first), Humans, and GW Tokens.  It’s very easy to flip her the turn after you play her in this deck, so you put these archetypes in a position where they need to have their limited amount of removal or they’re facing a card that’s far more powerful than most of their options.  Chandra wins most games where she flips, and it’s easier to get them to fire off their removal spell before she lands when you’re running tons of low to the ground threats prior to her arrival.

You’re already a deck that Control decks don’t want to see, with the one caveat being their ability to Languish and Lifegain.  You play around these as best as you can, and post board you cut non-damage or low-output cards (Galvanic Bombardment, etc) for more threats.  Generally that means bringing in Thunderbreak Regent, as while it dies to Languish it’s still an annoying threat for them and one that lines up against a lot of their creatures such as Avacyn and Kalitas.  You’re playing the cat and mouse game here, hoping to not overextend, bait a Languish, and then punish them with Devils or Lightning Berserker.  You’ll want to be conscious of Exquisite Firecraft, as it’s often the linchpin card vs any flavor of Control deck (counters or not), and killing things like Kalitas, Gisela, or Thalia’s Lancers with it is very pertinent.

Act of Treason is another card that can be outside considered for the Control matchups too, as they are yet another deck that generally has one creature at a time on the battlefield and that creature is often both a roadblock and your end game.

Conclusion

On the day at SCG Regionals I played:
Rd1:  Bant CoCo (Win, 2-0)
Rd2:  GW Tokens (Loss, 1-2)
Rd3:  UG Crush (Win 2-0)
Rd4:  Bant CoCo (Loss, 1-2)
Rd5:  Bant CoCo (Win, 2-1)
Rd6:  Bant CoCo (Win, 2-0)
Rd 7:  Opponent No-Show (Sweet) (Win)
Rd 8:  BG Delirium (Win, 2-0)

Hopefully this article outlines the thought process well regarding my choices and possibilities for future direction with the deck.  I think if anything, I’d like to either add the Thunderbreak package and/or get lower to the ground with the build.  Everything was clicking at the tournament for it, and generally the games I lost were to mistakes I made or the usual things for Mono Red (land flood, being 1 removal spell short, etc).  Bottom line, the archetype is back and in a big way, don’t believe the naysayers.

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

Reign of Fire

atarkascommand

Reign of Fire

This is the longest I’ve gone without writing an article, but the Magic has still very much been alive for my fellow compatriots and I.  This weekend in particular was more exciting than I expected, and some great results happened which I’ll share with you readership along with what I’d recommend for next week.  We’ll talk a little Standard, a little Modern, and above all else; Mountains.

Podcasting, Testing, and Decision-Making

So one of the big reasons for the delay was that I became involved with two Podcasts.  I’ve never been a big listener of them before but I think it’s a fantastic platform to spread news about things you’re “actually” interested in as opposed to the local radio.  And in this case its perfect for delivering expanded Magic content.  If you haven’t listened to them yet, here are the links to get you started:

Card Knock Life:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Red Deck Podcast:

Episode 1

Episode 2

(*Note – There are also iTunes and RSS links on those pages)

Card Knock Life is myself and four fellow Magic friends who all lived and/or played in Madison, WI at one time or another and all have that competitive fire.  I think we assembled a great team for this, all of us are very strong in certain areas of the game, so you’ll get your jack-of-all-trades content here and just about anyone should be able to extract some food for thought.

The Red Deck Podcast is of course about all things fire.  Myself, fellow Madisonian Andy Eichelkraut, and Chicago-Based Davis Merced work through the various Red triumphs of the format, brews we’re working on, and strategies for various Red archetypes.  We’ll be working on expanding both casts, with discussions on hands and play, special guests, new segments, and of course fun stories, so stay tuned.

Most of the month though has been spent testing.  I didn’t have many specific tournaments to attend, with a PPTQ last weekend and States this weekend being the more important ones.  I was trying just about everything on Cockatrice, from Mono Red Aggro (Braverman), Red Aggro Splash Green (Bumgardner), RG Aggro (Merriam), RG Dragons (Van Meter), Jeskai Tokens (Anderson), to my own brews of Mardu.  Plus there were a dozen other lists that seemed like a blast to play but just not quite competitive enough or that needed heaps of time I couldn’t allocate.  Big Red was one of the front runners, along with some White-based Aggro lists of Craig Wescoe’s that centered around Citadel Siege.  On that note, I even messed around with Prophetic Flamespeaker and Citadel Siege since I saw a local circuit player having a great deal of success with the combination and it was fun in my Become Immense brew.

At the end of the day, playing all of these decks, along with even playing Control, Combo and basically everything in the format, led to a scrambled eggs effect in my brain.  Usually doing a gauntlet gives you an idea of what deck is the best in the format, but I think the trouble was that I was just not willing to accept the answer.  To me, three decks stood out as the cream of the crop:

Jeskai Ascendancy Tokens, GW Devotion, and Abzan Aggro

All of these decks have key ways of attacking the format which I think put them head and shoulders above the rest *most* of the time.  I say most because unlike the older formats, Standard is a collection of fairly evenly matched archetypes.  Your “bad” matchup isn’t unwinnable, and your good matchups aren’t a lock.  Plus, since this is a newly refreshed format, people are trying all styles of builds and cards which means if you put in the practice hours you can gain some very relevant edges over an expected metagame.

So why do these archetypes succeed more often than not?  Well, for Jeskai Tokens, their gameplan of playing lots of tokens works well against the removal of the format.  Most decks are playing removal that costs more than one mana and is designed for specific creatures.  The tokens on the other hand are just value plays every time and make that removal look awkward, while at the same time putting pressure on your opponent.  Add some creatures to the mix, some burn spells, and draw cards to refuel, and you have a deck that is attacking from 2-3 different angles which puts any opponent in a tough spot.  Oh and lets not forget the centerpiece, Jeskai Ascendancy, which just goes bananas if your opponent doesn’t have an answer for it and you win almost every game in that scenario.  Sure your opponent can have sweepers post-board, but most of the sweepers like Drown in Sorrow or Anger of the Gods aren’t very good once an Ascendancy is in play, or you just beat it with multiple token generators and Treasure Cruise.  Virulent Plague is the scariest answer, or heavy enchantment removal, but just about everyone includes only 1-2 of those in their board, and that’s only if they both decide to and have access to it.

GW Devotion is extremely underplayed, but is arguably still just as good as the weekend that it broke out onto the scene.  It has more powerful cards than even most Abzan lists, the ability to take the game to a level that is completely out of reach of other decks, and a great anti-control plan in the form of Mastery of the Unseen + Whisperwood Elemental.  The deck is most vulnerable to fliers and quick Red Aggro starts, although those matchups can also be great depending on build and draws.  The bottom line, like Jeskai Tokens, this deck gets a lot of free wins off the back of many opponents not being able to keep pace.  To shore up some of the weaknesses, I strongly suggest including a heavy amount of both of these cards in your build:

deathmistraptordragonlorddromoka

Deathmist Raptor keeps the deck fast, kills most of the relevant creatures in the format, and propels value in a deck that is all about it.  Dragonlord Dromoka is one of those cards that people just don’t realize is insane yet.  Ramping into a creature that dies to only a few key spot removal spells yet shuts down many archetypes is very important.  The lifegain and big butt is nigh unbeatable when playing vs Mono Red, and the other clauses force your Control opponent to let you resolve anything else you want if they don’t have a Hero’s Downfall or other similar removal outlet.

Abzan Aggro is “basically” the same as it was before which was already a deck featuring the best 2/3/4 drops in the format.  But the big changes here are Surrak, the Hunt Caller and Dromoka’s Command, both of which take the aggressive level up a full notch and make up for the slower hands that most builds used to have.  What was always chided for being a “Midrange deck misappropriately labeled” is now a full-on beat your face in archetype.  Dromoka’s Command especially adds a layer to this deck, letting you kill a Courser and potentially fight something else, so that your aggressive starts aren’t stymied by the bigger midrange brethren.

Control is a good choice too, but I think that it’s more pilot dependent.  I’ve seen a lot of people do bad, and a lot of people do good, vs how any of the above three decks can provide so many free wins that it’s hard to suggest otherwise.  Watch some of Adrian Sullivan’s coverage at the Pro Tour, and you’re likely to see some big differences between that and your local pilots.

But this isn’t a site about “decks in the format” and none of those decks speak to me.  Instead, I first turned to Mono Red.  Dragons of Tarkir brought some incredible tools.  Never before have I seen so many fantastic Red cards from a new set.  I mean, you have got to be kidding me:

dragonwhispererireshamanthunderbreakregentdraconicroarlightning-berserkerrendingvolleyroasttwinboltdragonfodder

I feel like Patrick Sullivan had bars of gold and 18-hour slow-cooked pork roasts delivered to all the R&D employees at Wizards.  SOMEONE over there thought Red needed a boost, and man did it get one.  These are obviously just a handful of the good Red cards of the set, and almost every single one I’ve used so far in some form or another.  This set is deep, and the exploring is far from over in my mind.

Mono Red put up great numbers on opening weekend, and has continued to do so since including winning the Pro Tour on Sunday.  I personally think the deck is very strong and like it a great deal, but it’s incredibly challenging to win against certain archetypes and I haven’t found a comfort spot with it yet.  My local metagame has a lot of Abzan and GW, and the people that play them are excellent pilots.  While those matchups can sometimes be very favorable for Red, piloting and card choices go a long way in determining the final victor.  Ultimately, I got turned off by the brick walls and heaps of life gain I kept seeing, and wanted to go a different route.  If someone handed me a 75 for Red and said “Go”, I wouldn’t be mad, but there are inherent weaknesses.

For starters, Braverman’s Eidolon of the Great Revel in the maindeck has a lot of liability.  It slows you down and it isn’t great against certain decks or in certain situations.  Eidolon is much more effective in older or slower formats, and this one while being somewhat slow isn’t that way all the time.  I like him better in the board, which gives you room for more one-drops and better removal.  Searing Blood and Roast are fairly critical cards that could be in the maindeck, and successful builds I’ve seen access Harness by Force out of the board instead of the Outpost Siege plan that Braverman put together.  Siege is fantastic, but in a world with Dromoka’s Command and in a deck that doesn’t want to wait for a four drop, let alone taking a turn off potentially, Siege isn’t worth playing in my opinion.  If you want to have a few in the board for Control that’s fine, but I’d rather use that slot for Eidolon and Harness.  Roast doesn’t hit the big dragons from RG, or Mantis Rider in Jeskai, so you want to have some flexibility.  Bathe in Dragonfire is equally fine as a one or two of for the same purposes.  No slight on Braverman though, he went 8-0 at a competitive Invitational, and his brother went 7-1.  The deck is no slouch.

Going bigger with Mono Red was another idea I had.  I couldn’t figure out a list that had a high enough winning percentage for me despite throwing many ideas against the wall.  I knew the format was largely vulnerable to fliers, so the basic shell of Flamewake Phoenix into 4/5 mana fliers was the base.  But beyond that, the decisions were very tough.  That is until the Pro Tour happened this weekend and a friend Evan alerted me to this fantastic list from Raphael Levy that looks like a super sweet 75 to sleeve up next weekend:

raphaellevyMonoRed

Sure, there’s a little black in the board, but this deck is all Red business.  Eschewing Stormbreath Dragon, Levy realizes he’s not as fast at times as the RG Dragons deck and just goes with pure efficient four drops.  At the same time, these are really the best “dragons” anyway, since both Ashcloud and Thunderbreak have a tough time coming off the board.  This furthermore allows you to not pigeonhole into the Draconic Roar plan, which isn’t always great against several of the popular archetypes.  Take for instance RG Dragons itself, which doesn’t have many targets for Roar.  You’d much prefer a Wild Slash to kill Elvish Mystic, and also handle other early threats that break your tempo.  Post-board the black removal shores up key weaknesses, with Self-Inflicted Wound giving you extra game against Abzan and GW, Virulent Plague shutting down an otherwise tough tokens/Mono Red matchup, and Ultimate Price allowing you to strike down other fliers in your way (along with just being well-positioned).  This list is a thing of beauty, and I can’t wait to put in games with it.

At the PPTQ last Saturday I was planning on playing Braverman’s exact 75 cards, but I audibled at the very last minute to Bumgardner’s Green splash version.  Like Martin Dang saw with his PT winning list, I thought Atarka’s Command was a powerful effect to trump the mirror and Siege Rhino.  Unfortunately when I say audibled at the “very last minute” I really do mean that, and it caused me to both leave some cards out I wanted as well as just misregistering my final decklist, losing round 1, receiving a game loss for round 2, and heading home within an hour.  It was sad and embarrassing, one of the worst moments in my Magic history that I can remember.  I lacked confidence that day, being worried about everything from what I saw in the room to how the deck would play out.  It wasn’t a good spot to be in, and my performance and behavior reflected as much.

This Saturday I didn’t want that to happen again.  I playtested a lot with Mardu, as I had been wanting to bring it back and a friend of mine, Khair, clued me into a version he was interested in trying.  It featured a full 12 token generators, in the form of Dragon Fodder, Hordeling Outburst, and Goblin Rabblemaster, but it ditched that plan post-board for a full-on Mardu Control package.  I criticized initially, not so much because I didn’t like the list, but because Mardu has the following fundamental problems that I personally had been having weeks of trouble addressing:

– Poor Control matchup due to many dead cards

– Poor tokens matchup

– Whip/Hornet Queen issues

– Poor Mono Red / Jeskai Burn matchup

That on paper looks like a lot of issues, but the payoff for playing Mardu is access to the best removal in the format, specifically Crackling Doom, and some extremely powerful cards in Butcher of the Horde, Sorin, Solemn Visitor, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, and Thoughtseize.  You also can tailor your build to just about any meta if you know ahead of time what you’re getting into.  Anyone who’s read my site knows I love the archetype, and had some success in the previous PTQ season with my own blend of it.  Khair’s list looked intriguing, and after testing games online I believed it shored up a lot of the weaknesses listed above.  The tokens helped put extra pressure on Control in a form that wasn’t easy to remove outside of sweepers, it allowed you to vary your pressure, and post-board Thoughtseize and or Mastery of the Unseen could seal the deal.  The tokens matchup was helped immensely by having tokens of your own as well as better removal post-board.  The Whip/Hornet Queen decks became less popular and could be answered with many of the same post-board options, and the tokens furthermore stymied Mono Red and Jeskai, especially when backed up by increased lifegain in the deck.

Here’s what I ultimately settled on:

Mardu Midrange by John Galli for SCG Wisconsin State Championship (5-2, 18th of 95)

4 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Butcher of the Horde

4 Dragon Fodder
4 Hordeling Outburst
2 Outpost Siege
3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
1 Chained to the Rocks
1 Ultimate Price
4 Crackling Doom
4 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
4 Thoughtseize
2 End Hostilities
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Utter End
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 Outpost Siege
1 Archfiend of Depravity

On the day, I played against RG Dragons, UW Heroic, Abzan Aggro (four times), and Jeskai Tokens.  I lost to two of the Abzan Aggro players, one of which made top 4, the other top 32.  The Abzan Aggro matchup didn’t play out great, which is a shame because it’s one of the decks I always want to be able to beat.  The lack of Lightning Strike or Bile Blight was heavily felt, and even the one-of Chained to the Rocks (specifically because of the presence of Dromoka’s Command) was awkward many times.  This can be shored up easily though, as I think for the future I’ll be adding more black mana and Hero’s Downfall along with a couple copies of Lightning Strike.  Outpost Siege, while very strong, is another liability that might see a change.

The Strikes go better with Soulfire Grand Master, who was a complete beating in this tournament.  I was initially playing Seeker, and had played playsets of both cards in my previous Jeskai lists to success, but Soulfire felt much better right now because of the obscene amount of life he usually gains.  Sure, they can kill him with much of the removal in the format and he can’t attack through a Caryatid, but he can still attack into a Caryatid for lifegain and his buyback ability is absurd.  There were many games where I was buying back Stoke the Flames after convoking it with all the tokens, and Crackling Doom.  Plus, being in the list, you can play a lot of miser cards if you want solely to buy them back if you feel like they’re good options for the meta.

One of the things I enjoy about this build is that it goes from small to big, and it gets free wins.  Playing an aggressive tokens package lets you overwhelm the unprepapred or stumbling opponent, and if that plan doesn’t work out you have plan B in Butcher and Sorin.  Plan C is in the board, where you many times can just bring in the full 15 cards and cut the cheap stuff or dead cards to be a full Control build with value answers at the top end.  Or you can just board in Thoughtseize and Utter Ends to strip them of answers for your early Rabblemasters and walk away with a game before they can do anything about it.  This happened to several of my Abzan opponents who thought they’d just be able to slice and dice through all my stuff because they had their own board plan, only to see it vanish as they have half their life total eaten in the matter of a few turns.

You can go a few different routes if you want to change things up.  I toyed around with dragon builds for a while, and I still think adding Draconic Roar, Thunderbreak Regent, and Stormbreath Dragon is a possibility.  Playing those in conjunction with Crackling Doom gives you a leg up on other Dragons decks, with the caveat being that you need to watch how many dead cards you include.  Builds like the ones Jim Davis outlined HERE look great against Midrange and Aggro, but you have a dogfight in game 1 against Control that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.  Still, he evokes strong concepts that could be avenues to push further, especially given his recent string of successful tournaments.  Maybe incorporating the tokens plan, or just a little more aggro could open up a door to better games against the perceived bad portion of the field.  I’ve talked on this site before about playing a deck with “levels” in it to put pressure on your opponent with various lines, and this archetype has infinite ways in which to do that.

As a side note about Jim Davis, another friend Ray clued me into this feature match which I thought was incredible.  If you have time, I strongly suggest checking this out as it displays an excellent level of play from both sides (Jeskai Aggro vs Mono Red):

If I were to play Mardu next week, this is my updated list:Mardu Dragons by John Galli

4 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Thunderbreak Regent
4 Stormbreath Dragon
1 Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury

4 Hordeling Outburst
2 Dragon Fodder
4 Draconic Roar
4 Crackling Doom
4 Stoke the Flames

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

Sideboard
1 Magma Spray
3 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 Self-Inflicted Wound
2 End Hostilities (Crux if you add more Black mana)
2 Read the Bones
2 Utter End
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Kolaghan Monument

One of the other great storylines that came out of States this year was my friend McKinley Summ taking 2nd place with RG Dragons.  He played a very similar list to Chris Van Meter’s winning brew from last weekend’s SCG Open, substituting a few removal spells and planeswalkers for Surrak, the Hunt Caller to give the deck more explosive openers.  It worked in spades for him, as I watched opponent after opponent get leveled by Elvish Mystic into “insert facebeater” followed by gigantic Crater’s Claws.  Even in test games with my Mardu deck, sometimes the pressure of cards like Thunderbreak Regent and haste creatures were just too difficult to deal with.  That, combined with Dragonlord Atarka and lifegain off of Courser of Kruphix was enough to propel him through 95 people and almost obtain the gold medal.  Still, it was his first major top 8, he got some nice booty in a box of DTK, and it was a memorable run that I’m sure will inspire him for the next one.

RG Dragons by McKinley Summ for SCG Wisconsin State Championship (6-1-1, 2nd of 95)

4 Elvish Mystic
4 Sylvian Caryatid
2 Heir of the Wild
4 Courser of Kruphix
3 Ashcloud Phoenix
3 Surrak the Hunt Caller
4 Thunderbreak Regent
4 Stormbreath Dragon

1 Dragonlord Atarka
4 Draconic Roar
3 Crater’s Claws
1 Roast

5 Forest
5 Mountain
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Temple of Abandon
2 Mana Confluence
2 Haven of the Spirit Dragon
1 Rugged Highlands

Sideboard
2 Destructive Revelry
3 Wild Slash
3 Arc Lighning
2 Arbor Colossus
2 Sarhan, the Dragonspeaker
1 Nissa, Worldwaker
1 Mob Rule
1 Roast

 Modern

I haven’t talked much about Modern recently, but the format is interesting at the moment because the banning of Treasure Cruise and Birthing Pod opened up some opportunities.  Most people slotted somewhere into the usual spectrum with Twin, Affinity, Junk, Tron, Burn, Bloom, Jund, etc, but none of these archetypes are as oppressive as the previously dominant ones.  That lets brewers have room to try things, such as the Zoo list by Jeff Szablak which includes Collected Company.  I’ve been seeing that card get serious attention in both Standard and Modern, and it appears to be the next breakout hit going forward.  There are some combos with it in Modern, in addition to it just being an insanely good value card at instant speed.

My podcast partner Davis Merced brewed up a Mono Red Aggro list for Modern that we talked about in our casts, and he recently took it “live” the last two weekends to great success.  First he went to TCG States with it, where he placed in the top 4, followed by winning a PPTQ with an updated version this Saturday.  Here is his brainchild for those of you with an itch to break into this format with something fresh:

TCG States (Illinois) 

Devastating “Scumbag Red” by Davis Merced (4th Place)

4 Goblin Guide
3 Zurgo Bellstriker
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
4 Vexing Devil
3 Legion Loyalist

4 Lightning Bolt
3 Devastating Summons
4 Brute Force
4 Titan’s Strength

19 Mountains

Sideboard
4 Skullcrack
3 Searing Blood
2 Smash to Smithereens
1 Electrickery
1 Forked Bolt
1 Spellskite
3 Rending Volley

 Atarka “Scumbag Red” *Updated* by Davis Merced (1st Place, PPTQ)

4 Goblin Guide
3 Zurgo Bellstriker
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
4 Vexing Devil
3 Legion Loyalist

4 Lightning Bolt
3 Atarka’s Command
4 Brute Force
4 Titan’s Strength

7 Mountains
4 Copperline Gorge
4 Wooded Foothills
2 Arid Mesa
2 Stomping Ground

Sideboard
4 Skullcrack
3 Searing Blood
1 Smash to Smithereens
1 Shattering Spree
1 Electrickery
1 Forked Bolt
1 Destructive Revelry
3 Rending Volley

I’ve played the deck at a few local tournaments, online, and with friends, and there’s definitely something there.  It’s faster than Burn and other combo decks on average, it comes out of left field for almost all opponents since they’ll put you on being Burn, and it’s Red beatdown on the cheap so what more could you ask for?  We’ve both had a little trouble with more midrangey decks like Tarmo-Twin or Abzan that can clog up the ground, but even against these decks you can usually sacrifice a guy or two for the greater good when doing your final attacks to close the deal.  Cards like Brute Force let you both kill faster as well as save your creatures from removal like Lightning Bolt, and both Devastating Summons or Atarka’s Command provide an end-game that force your opponent to find their out or be dead the following turn.  It’s a sweet list, so tune into our next podcast for more discussion on it if it’s up your alley.

On my side of things, I’ve still been working on Burn.  I don’t have a final list put together just yet, but fellow Red mage Jasper Johnson-Epstein won a PPTQ a few weeks back with his updated version (I based my original off of his), and he lent it to a friend Ben Rasmussen this weekend who won a large Grand Prix Trial for Vegas which included flight and hotel for the entire trip.  Ben almost never plays Red decks, so it’s a telling sign that this list is for real.  If Burn is your jam, this is what you’ll want to be on:

Burn by Jasper Johnson-Epstein

4 Goblin Guide
3 Grim Lavamancer
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel

4 Lava Spike
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Shard Volley
4 Atarka’s Command
4 Boros Charm
2 Searing Blaze
2 Skullcrack
4 Rift Bolt

2 Arid Mesa
3 Bloodstained Mire
2 Copperline Gorge
4 Sacred Foundry
3 Scalding Tarn
2 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Stomping Ground
2 Wooded Foothills

Sideboard
3 Kor Firewalker
1 Spellskite
1 Electrickery
2 Rending Volley
4 Destructive Revelry
2 Searing Blaze
2 Skullcrack

 Limited

I managed to get in a draft on Friday night, my first draft since Khans of Tarkir released.  It’s a bit strange for me as I used to draft all the time and really loved playing limited, but a few sets soured the experience for me and the financial aspect of continually having to buy packs made me take a hiatus.  Well I have to say, this format is extremely good.  I was pleasantly surprised that Red appears to be one of the stronger colors (confirmed by regular drafters in my area too) and I took a RB Aggro deck to 2-1.  Goblin Heelcutter is just as nuts as he is in Standard, and the removal in the format is both plentiful and effective.  It was a positive experience that I hope to repeat again soon (especially with my prize packs from the weekend), so if I manage to get a few more drafts in I’ll consider doing a feature on my thoughts for both limited and Red.  I don’t usually force colors, but if Red looks good and it is in this set, we should have some good discussion points.

Singing Off

Thank you all again for your support, and

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

*Edit – Just before going to print I noticed an article with data from the Pro Tour that outlined a large contrast with some of my talking points about Standard. These are my opinions of course with data from my own testing and experience, and the meta changes rapidly so take it as you will, but hopefully there’s good info to be obtained from both sources regardless of how the numbers shake out in one event. For anyone interested, that article is also pretty good, and here is the link-

http://www.mtggoldfish.com/articles/pro-tour-dragons-of-tarkir-by-the-numbers

Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

mantisriderwallpaper

Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

16 years ago (at least according to Wizards), I attended my first Pro Tour Qualifier for Magic the Gathering.  This past Saturday, I attended my last.  It was a memorable journey, and a lot was on my mind going into the weekend.

For starters, this qualifier season was for a trip to Brussels, Belgium.  I’m a quarter Belgian and have relatives I’ve never met who live right near there, so it would be unique opportunity to get to see them and also live out a childhood dream.

There were two options being considered in the weeks prior, Grand Prix Memphis, and a regular qualifier in Minneapolis.  I was originally not planning to do Memphis at all, but had picked up some side jobs for extra cash and knew a number of area pros who were going.  There were also others in my playgroup interested in a trip of some kind, so I started scouting out what it would take.  I was on the fence, but the costs still looked overwhelming with a minimum of 2 nights in a hotel, twice the entry fee, and twice the food and gas costs.

So as it stood, we began planning for Minneapolis.  We had 8 interested parties, and potentially 3 vehicles at our disposal.  In the end, as usual with everyone’s busy lives these days, those numbers cut down as we hit Friday.  While at work, I got a few IMs from folks saying they wanted to do Memphis still and were planning to leave at 3pm.  I just couldn’t make it work with my schedule and knew it was going to still be way too much cost-wise.  I briefly entertained the idea but decided to stay on course at the end of the day.  I used that extra time to playtest a bit after work online, and was going into the tournament with my guns set on playing RW Aggro.

It’s now 3AM Saturday morning.  My alarm goes off waking up my wife and I, and I figure I’ve probably had about an hour of sleep.  There’s no sunlight out, and everything feels lethargic.  On top of that, I’m feeling a little flu-ish, and my mind starts racing as to whether or not its worth doing this trip.  But as usual, I push the concerns aside, shower, grab my cards, and go to meet my crew.  We stumble into our Minivan, bleary-eyed but excited to sling cards one last time at this level.  I’m in the far back seat, I can’t hear anything our driver is saying, the heat is blasting so hot I’m stripping down, and classical music is rocking the suburbs.  Ultimately things are adjusted and we start talking about all the different decks in Standard, what is to be expected, and what seems like the best trump.  The group mostly believes they’ll be seeing a lot of RW Aggro, GR Devotion, RG Aggro, and a splash of everything else.  At least that’s what results the prior weekend would indicate, as well as the trending all those archetypes have been seeing in general.

I was a little disappointed at the time with RW, not in that I thought it was a bad deck, but that the metagame might be adjusting.  It’s one of those level zero decks that is always fairly good, even with a target on its head, but a few games against GR Devotion had unnerved me, as they were either able to ramp into something ridiculous too early in the game or stonewall my early aggressiveness.  That, combined with the fact that it was completely left out of the top 8 of Grand Prix Seville was giving me second thoughts.  Whisperwood Elemental in particular felt like the best card in Standard.  I’d played many games both with it and against it, and the card was just absurd.  If he’s not killed on the turn he’s played, most opponents have little chance of a comeback.  I quickly talked my carmate playing Abzan Midrange into jamming it into his list, and post-tournament he indicated that he was happy with the choice.  Meanwhile on my side of things, I asked if anyone had the cards for GR Devotion, but it sounded like a longshot.

On the last leg of the trip, I started reading Martin Juza’s article on his top 8 finish at Grand Prix Seville.  Jeskai, as I had mentioned in previous articles, was always a deck I liked and one that my teammate Brad and I had worked on quite a bit.  He’d had some strong finishes with it, and as I’m reading Juza’s article I kept thinking more and more about how good it would be to fly over all these ground stalls and just orient myself with a little more burn.  Juza mentions that he beat RW Aggro 4 times at the Grand Prix, and if that was to be the expected field, that seemed like a fantastic position to be in.  I wasn’t wild about Treasure Cruise in his list, and he suggested changing it with Outpost Siege (or at least playing more Siege), so I made that change along with running another copy of Dig Through Time.  My carmate Kyle who wasn’t settled on a deck decided to hop on board, and we both put together the list at the tournament site when we arrived.

Here was what I ended up playing:

Jeskai Aggro – by John Galli 5th Place, Pro Tour Qualifier Legion Games

4 Seeker of the Way
1 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Mantis Rider
3 Stormbreath Dragon

3 Outpost Siege
2 Dig Through Time

3 Wild Slash
4 Lightning Strike
1 Jeskai Charm
3 Valorous Stance
4 Stoke the Flames

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

Sideboard
4 Disdainful Stroke
1 Negate
3 Anger of the Gods
1 Glare of Heresy
1 End Hostilities
2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
1 Valorous Stance
2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos

Post-tournament I would change a lot from this list, but it sufficed in being reasonable at what it does.  Over the course of the day I would play a myriad of archetypes, from RW Aggro, Jeskai Mirror, Sultai Control, Sultai Ramp, Abzan Aggro, etc, with the only blemish being a second round loss to one of the two Sultai Control decks.  In that match, he had some fantastic hands to fairly medicore ones of mine, and overall I felt the new build of those decks is much better than it used to be.  Early Ashioks gave me some trouble along with having all the removal and counters he needed everytime I jammed a threat.  Furthermore, he verbally rubbed it in while at the same time taking my Soulfire Grand Master and buying back Hero’s Downfalls with it.

Yeaaah.  It was pretty ugly.  He was from Mankato, Minnesota and had brought a crew, who I ended up running into all day.  Fortunately, I got my revenge and dismantled two of his carmates.  The third of which would come in round 6 where I had a camera match against RW Aggro.  I expected him to be on Sultai Control, only to be staring down Outbursts into Rabblemasters and quickly getting buried in game 1.  Games 2 and 3, my Rabble + Mantis prevailed though, along with keeping removal spells up and controlling the tempo.

An important note on this match, along with my sideboarding all day, was that I think it’s important not to follow a hard and fast plan.  I often, as well as other writers, emphasize this when laying out a guide.  I typically tend to board into a more controllish package, and I think against RW you probably even want most of the counters if you expect them to do the same, but many times during the day I just added a smidge of extra sweepers/removal and kept most of my aggro.  One of the issues with the mirror or psuedo mirros is that you can fall behind on tempo even if you brought in this great endgame package.  Sure, once you hit 5 mana you have plenty of great things to do, but if they’re miles ahead of you on board state you won’t have time to catch up.

A single unanswered Rabblemaster or Mantis Rider can make all of the difference for either side, and the threshold for getting “burned out” is something that you need to be conscious of on every turn.  One of my carmates and I later discussed this when talking about my top 8 match, where I held up burn instead of playing Outpost Siege.  It was an extremely debatable line, but the turn I would have played Siege would have let him hit me for 10 with the Rabble and tokens he had out in combination with a presumed Stormbreath in hand.  As good as Siege is at card advantage (and it was for sure the difference in that match overall), I would have just been dead far sooner had I played it.  I felt the possibility of him bricking on his Siege for a turn was higher than me losing to burn after taking 10 damage.

After my camera match, I was 5-1 with one round left.  They posted standings and I was at the bottom of the X-1 bracket, in 10th place.  There would be no draw into top 8 for me.  I was paired against Dave Yetka, a pro player who’s always a fairly congenial guy when I’ve seen him at events or heard stories.  He was playing Abzan Aggro and I had just watched him lose to fellow pro Ryan Hipp who was playing Jeskai too.  I knew Abzan in general was a dogfight, but the Aggro version felt much better because of the lack of heavy Coursers into Planeswalkers.  This turned out to be the case, as game 1 I got about as good a hand as I could ask for and steamrolled him with Seeker into Rabble into Mantis into removal.  Game 2 he got stuck on lands and soon enough there was a handshake and a top 8 for me.

top8standingsMinnesota

The top 8 was somewhat unknown, but we knew there was a mix of Jeskai, Abzan, and Devotion.  As it ended up, I was paired against Ian Birrell playing RW Aggro.  Game 1 was the critical one in my mind, and I wish I could rewind to that moment and play better.  I was running on fumes, being powered on by soda and convention food which is never the right place to be with an hour of sleep.

I was on the play, and my first few opportunities in hand would be I believe a Rabblemaster, Mantis, and bigger threats later on.  I had a Wild Slash, but no followup burn.  On his turn 2, he played a Seeker of the Way and passed.  This was the first mistake on my part, I declined to Wild Slash it because I was concerned he would play a Rabblemaster on turn 3.  Even if he had, I could have fought through that or let myself draw to my outs.  Instead, Seeker of the Way started doing his job, and Ian was able to enable prowess on the next 6-7 turns keeping him alive in what was otherwise a battle much in my favor.  I was never able to Wild Slash it, and I followed this up by neglecting to play a Stormbreath Dragon when I hit 5 mana.  This one was unfortunately NOT on purpose, but simply me being tired and not even realizing it before I passed turn.  Had I played that, it would have ate the Stoke in his hand instead of me taking that damage, and I would have had enough to close the deal and be up a game.  Instead, at less than 5 life he stabilized and started out card advantaging me, and we were on to game 2.

Game 2 I came out blazing, he fought me off for a good while, but I was able to finish him with double dragons.  Game 3 I neglected to play a turn 3 Anger of the Gods hoping to soak more value out of it, missed my fourth land drop to play my Outpost Siege, and watched as he played an Outpost Siege and started winning the race.  I had a lot of good cards in hand, including a Stoke to control some of his creatures, but he hit solid plays every turn and I never saw that fourth land until it was far too late.  In the end, Ken Bearl took down the Qualifier with Jeskai, at least making me feel better about my deck choice.

Playing Jeskai in the Future and Looking at RW Aggro

Post-tournament I’m trying out the following Jeskai build.  My carmates and I began discussing the blue siege and I’m very curious to see if it’s better or worse than Outpost Siege.  The tempo advantage to Jeskai of having it be a three drop as opposed to four is huge, and Merfolk Looter was always an insane card in Sealed so I could see this being good in Standard.  Additionally, the “Frost Titan” ability of making them pay more to target your guys could be influential in a match against Abzan or Control where all of a sudden their Hero’s Downfalls essentially cost 5 mana.  Lastly, we may still want to add more Dig Through Time as the loot ability is great fuel to allow you to play it quicker.

Jeskai Aggro – John Galli, Post-Qualifier Build

4 Seeker of the Way
2 Soulfire Grand Master
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Mantis Rider
3 Stormbreath Dragon

4 Monastery Siege

4 Wild Slash
3 Lightning Strike
4 Stoke the Flames
3 Valorous Stance
1 Dig Through Time

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

Sideboard
2 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
2 Wingmate Roc
4 Disdainful Stroke
1 Negate
2 Erase
2 Arc Lightning
1 Glare of Heresy
1 Dig Through Time

Besides adding more Digs, the Wingmate Rocs are still in testing.  Matt Light ran them in his board at Grand Prix Seville and I was discussing the option before Minneapolis.  I couldn’t figure out if I liked Elspeth, Sarkhan, or Roc better, but I feel against the Abzan decks I want a value card that is also easier to cast.  Elspeth at 6 mana can be really tough to get to, even if it’s probably the best choice otherwise.  Sarkhan just felt like redundancy, despite his ability to kill Dragons and Rocs.  Any of them could be correct, it will probably just depend on the metagame or your personal preference.

At the PTQ I was sorely missing Abzan Advantage or Erase, so that is coming back.  It’s just too important against Outpost Siege + Chained to the Rocks and against Courser of Kruphix + Frontier Siege.  While Glare of Heresy is a great card in the Metagame, it’s not solving all the critical problems and thus the numbers have to be spread out a bit.

Brimaz overperformed, I wouldn’t mind playing 3 of him in the board.  Any time I had a Mantis Rider and a Brimaz on the table I basically felt the game was unloseable.  Casting him wasn’t an issue with the manabase most of the time, and he’s still a card many decks have to 2-for-1 themselves in order to deal with.

Anger of the Gods was good, but Arc Lightning seems better.  Resolved Hornet Queens will always be unfortunate, but killing your own guys or playing around it is also fairly terrible.  RW Aggro already plays Arc, and its never been bad for me there, so I think the transition is easy.  Ryan Hipp was also playing Arc, and he’s almost always right when it comes to the metagame.

The counterspells were straight-business all day, and if anything I’d consider some hard counters.  Maybe a Dissolve or a Dissipate, just something to say no to everything.  There’s so many games where you get an early board presence backed up by counter-magic and your opponent is just stone dead.  This happened in my last Sultai Control match where I landed an early Seeker and Mantis Rider and then sat back with Negate and Disdainful Stroke in hand.  On that same note, I’d keep some number of Valorous Stances in post-board against Control, as it’s a useful in allowing you to not burn through your counters early and instead save them for tough threats like Ugin which can be one of the only breakers to a perfect board state.

As for how I sideboarded, I pretty much never cut Seeker of the Way or Mantis Rider, as I always wanted to have the potential for an Aggro start.  Rabblemaster usually got cut on the draw, or trimmed, Valorous Stance was mostly cut against Aggro, as was Jeskai Charm, and occasionally I would cut Sieges or Digs when they felt awkward.  I’m not wild about losing card advantage, as both cards are usually the difference in a game, but sometimes you just don’t want to be as top heavy or you want to max out on threats.  Again, not hard and fast rules here, just ways to throw your opponent off or out-game them.  Against Control, I’d cut Wild Slashes and a Strike or Two, with the exception being when you value having something against more rampy/delvy versions (to clear out early blockers).  Lastly, I’d almost always go at least a little bigger than game 1, since everyone is planning to Blastoise the hell out of your early game.

If Monastery Siege ends up being very poor in testing or not your thing, then more Dig Through Time or Jeskai Charms are probably correct.  I like the added burn damage that Charm presents, as well as having more ways to deal with Whisperwood Elemental.  That said, it can be the worst card at times, despite its flexibility.

The last note of the weekend was watching the closing moments of the SCG LA Open and Grand Prix Memphis.  I was sad to see Ben Stark lose in the finals, but his list for RW is what you should be playing hands down.  It’s extremely close to Ken Yukuhiro’s list which several in my area have been top 8’ing PTQs with, and one that I always found to be strong.  I’m a little remiss at the lack of creature threats, but Ben’s board plan more than makes up for it, and Mastery of the Unseen has potential to be a breakout card if things trend the way they did this weekend.  Chad White over on the SCG side stuck to the stock list for the most part, but he displayed why even playing mostly stock can get there.  His three copies of Brimaz are one of the things I’d think about moving over to Stark’s list, probably in favor of a singleton Outburst or Removal Spell.

The Future

The future of Magic for me looks murky at the moment.  There are no SCG Opens or Constructed Grand Prixes planned in the area for another 4 months, and the PPTQs just don’t feel the same.  I’ve spent a lot of money on the game, and it may be time to start switching gears.  I’ll probably try and do a few PPTQs in March, and keep my loyal readers updated, but I was really hoping this weekend would be that final breakthrough I’ve hoped and dreamed for.  I’m happy to top 8, and that’s still a huge accomplishment to me, but the thirst for the ultimate goal just gets stronger.

I’m sure as usual though the addiction of turning Mountains sideways will prevail.  Thank you all for your readership and support,

– Red Deck Winning

Trending: Analyzing The Metagame

shamanofthegreathunt

 Trending:  Analyzing The Metagame

Many of you probably have a Pro Tour Qualifier coming up this weekend, and I thought it would be beneficial to discuss my current thoughts on the Standard metagame.  When we last left off, I had just top 8’d a PPTQ with my own brew of Mardu Midrange.  I was defeated in the first round by a friend running the deck I had come to beat, but that didn’t deter me from working on changes.  I ran it back the following weekend, this time at a larger PPTQ, and also made top 8 of that tournament.  I made the following changes to the list prior to:

Out (Main):

goblinrabblemasterarclightning

In (Main):

brimazkingoforeskossarkhanthedragonspeakermagmajet

 

In (Side):

magmasprayerase

Out (Side):

brimazkingoforeskos

I found Rabblemaster often had a big target on his head in the format, despite being able to take over games.  Brimaz was both effective against the meta but also hard to kill with most of the common removal for aggro decks.  I felt like my list was already more controlling anyway, so smoothing out my draws with Magma Jet and adding some top end in the fourth Sarkhan felt right at the time.  In hindsight, I’m not really sure if the changes were that great, but it worked out well enough for the tournament.  I unfortunately lost again in Top 8 to the same player twice (once swiss, once quarterfinals), playing RW Tokens.  It would have been nice to have Arc Lightning for that matchup, but Brimaz still put in work and the match went to three games.

The spot where Brimaz was in the board became two Magma Spray and a third Erase.  I expected a field heavy with Sidisi Whip decks based on some intel from a friend who lived in the PPTQ’s hometown, and I wanted to shore up the RG matchup as it seemed a little more aggressive than I’d initially anticipated.  I did end up beating RG to advance to the top 8, unfortunately at the hands of a friend, but it was again good to see a successful win-and-in based on ideas I had conceptualized prior to the tournament.

But of course, that was yesterday.  Fate Reforged is today.

A Brave New World

Fate Reforged hit hard.  It was anticipated by most of the people in my testing group that the new cards were going to have a significant impact, and they did not disappoint on opening day.  All the testing we had done indicated that almost every archetype needed updating, and that several new brews were possible.  To the point of writing this article, I’m still very excited to see what comes out the next few weeks.  I’ve heard a lot of talk through the grapevine, and I think we are no where close to done seeing new Tier 1 and 2 decks make big splashes.

I’m going to go into detail about individual cards and a variety of decks, but I’ll start things off by showing the two archetypes that I considered for the first PPTQ last weekend.  I say considered, because I started with one and switched to the other with 10 minutes left in deck registration.

anchormansaywhat

Yep, it was one of those tournaments.  Fortunately, it didn’t quite backfire.

Originally, myself and testing buddy Brad were hellbent on Jeskai Aggro.  I had set it aside after two mediocre PPTQs a few weeks back, but he top 8’d States with it last year and thought it was poised for a comeback.  I came over to his house the Thursday before the tournament, and we playtested for hours.  Most of the games were Abzan Aggro vs Jeskai and RW Tokens vs Jeskai, but we switched who was playing what often to get a clear picture and played both boarded and unboarded games.

His Jeskai deck was winning.  And it was winning a lot.  I came in thinking it was going to be crush city playing Andrew Tenjum’s Abzan build, but there was a new card that had shifted the tide quite a bit:

valorousstance

I don’t really need to tell you why this card is so good.  It sold out 40+ copies at our store that same Friday night, and it was everywhere this weekend at tournaments.  Giving Jeskai a “kill target Siege Rhino or negate a Hero’s Downfall” pretty much sums it up.  Stance puts in work, and it resolves some of the big issues that Jeskai decks had in the past with Abzan.  It can kill all the relevant big threats, and it can keep them from getting your last guy off the board. This facet is pretty critical to the match when you’re usually the aggressor who also happens to have REACH.  So after our session, I ordered a bunch of cards for it and felt pretty confident.  With respect to Brad I’m keeping the list locked down, but it was very similar to one that popped up in the top 8 at SCG Washington D.C. (and Brad also top 4’d with his at the PPTQ):

Jeskai Aggro
Michael Walewski
8th Place at StarCityGames.com Standard Open on 1/24/2015
Standard

Creatures (16)

4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Mantis Rider
4 Seeker of the Way
2 Shaman of the Great Hunt
2 Stormbreath Dragon

Lands (25)
2 Island
3 Mountain
2 Plains
3 Battlefield Forge
3 Flooded Strand
4 Mystic Monastery
2 Shivan Reef
3 Temple of Enlightenment
3 Temple of Triumph

Spells (20)
3 Abzan Advantage
2 Dig Through Time
2 Jeskai Charm
4 Lightning Strike
4 Stoke the Flames
2 Valorous Stance
3 Wild Slash

Sideboard
1 Stormbreath Dragon
1 Abzan Advantage
2 Disdainful Stroke
3 Dissipate
1 Jeskai Charm
1 Negate
2 Valorous Stance
1 Keranos, God of Storms
3 Arc Lightning

I showed up at FNM the next night and went 1-3.  Unfortunately I don’t think this was a sign that the deck was bad, but I was too blinded by the result to see that.  I now felt shaky about the deck, rather than what I should have probably felt bad about which was the lines of play I took and bad variance/matchups.  I played against a few random decks, I drew mediocre, and I ignored the fact that most of my losses were close.  At the tournament the next morning, I played some more games against another colleague’s Abzan deck, and he was beating me despite earlier playtesting (he would later top 8).  Now I was real shaky.  Two of my buddies next to me, Will and John, had been working on Red Devotion at FNM and I had been talking with them about splashing in white for Valorous Stance and better sideboard options.  Will had it sleeved up and was planning to play it, so I took another look and it seemed really nice.  It was one of the decks I had independently been working on as well, and I think some of the conclusions Will had come to were better than articles I’d seen.  I had it in my deck bag too since I had planned to lend it to a friend, but it was a slightly different version.  Friends gathered round, and as good friends do, they helped me rip apart what I needed from elsewhere and put it together in time, even going so far as to write out my decklist for me (thanks Michael!).  Here is what both Will and I ultimately sleeved up:

RW Devotion by Will Stein, John Goudy, and John Galli – 1/24/2015

Maindeck:
4 Mardu Scout
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
4 Flamewake Phoenix
2 Ashcloud Phoenix
4 Fanatic of Mogis
2 Flamerush Rider
4 Stormbreath Dragon

2 Sarkhan, The Dragonspeaker

2 Wild Slash
3 Magma Jet
3 Lightning Strike
3 Valorous Stance

4 Temple of Triumph
4 Battlefield Forge
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
1 Wind-Scarred Crag
10 Mountain

Sideboard:
3 Glare of Heresy
3 Anger of the Gods
2 Erase
2 Magma Spray
2 Hammer of Purphoros
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Burn Away
1 Valorous Stance

What separates this list from other Red Devotion decks on the interwebs is the removal package and the lack of Goblin Rabblemaster.  In testing, both of us independently kept finding him to be lackluster, not adding to devotion as well as just being out of place.  It reminded me of when I took him out of Boss Sligh, and also saw that Tom Ross did the same.  There’s just some decks that don’t want him, despite how out of control he is when unanswered.

The removal suite was changed because Crater’s Claws just simply isn’t Mizzium Mortars.  While a developed board can lead to a big Crater’s Claws, especially with Nykthos, in order to survive in this format you usually have to be killing things on the first few turns and it’s a terrible spell for that.  I kept hearing the old adage “You’re supposed to be filling up the board in order to create a board state that your opponent can’t deal with when you’re playing devotion”.  Sure, that’s partly true, but in this day and age you don’t have Burning-Tree Emissary which was a huge catalyst for that, and you instead have more aggressive Red cards that do different things.  This deck is almost half-dash, half-devotion, and both halves compliment each other surprisingly well.  I often found many games where I still had a reasonable devotion count for Fanatic of Mogis, but he wasn’t a crutch that I relied on.  I could defend myself against early creatures with the change in burn, let Magma Jet smooth my draws and play less land, then just power in some fliers backed up by my dominant top end.  That’s the plan at least.

Flamerush Rider was a surprising card that Will keyed me into.  While I’m not sure if I like him in the list or not, he’s very similar to Nykthos in how ridiculously explosive he can be.  At the low end, you’re copying either Mardu Scout or Eidolon of the Great Revel, which is a lot of damage in its own right and can make mid-combat tricks fairly awful.  At the high end, you’re copying either 4 power fliers or. . .

fanaticofmogis

Let me tell you what this feels like:

champagneexplosion

#BOOM #VERYNICE

The deck would ultimately lead me to a 3-0 start at the PPTQ, humming along nicely with wins against Abzan Aggro, W/U Heroic, and Sultai Control.  At this point, I just needed to win the next round and I’d be a lock to double-draw into the top 8.  Unfortunately I got paired against a colleague Andy who has been wrecking it up in the last few weeks.  He was responsible for my sole loss in the first PPTQ that I top 8’d with Mardu, and here he was back again at the top table.  He was playing his tried and true GR Monsters deck, and our battle was one of the biggest haymaker fests in Magic I’ve ever seen.  Game 1 came down to a board state with him at 5 life, facing down double Flamewake Phoenix and Sarkhan.  He untaps, draws a Shaman of the Great Hunt, and swings back for 16.  I was at 16.  Game 2, similar affair, similar result.  It was disappointing, but I shrugged it off since I knew it was going to be a tough one.

The next round I got into a dogfight with a local player who’s been having a great run with W/U Heroic.  We had a few intense removal / protection wars over his heroic guys, and unfortunately he had the extra spell he needed each time.  The third and final round was against Abzan Midrange, and despite winning game 2 I was never really contending in games 1 and 3.  Sadly, it was a win-and-in for me, but he missed the boat getting 9th place on breakers.

Moving on, if you were to play Red Devotion this weekend (which is a strong aggressive archetype and probably a solid choice against the field), this is my current list:

RW Devotion by John Galli – 1/28/2015

4 Mardu Scout
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Goblin Heelcutter
4 Flamewake Phoenix
4 Ashcloud Phoenix
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Stormbreath Dragon

4 Magma Jet
2 Arc Lightning
4 Chained to the Rocks

4 Temple of Triumph
4 Battlefield Forge
3 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
1 Evolving Wilds
1 Plains
10 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Hushwing Gryff
4 Anger of the Gods
2 Abzan Advantage
1 Valorous Stance
1 Glare of Heresy
1 Outpost Siege
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Sarkhan, The Dragonspeaker

There’s still a lot of directions one could go, but I think this list maintains an aggressive posture while being able to defend itself better.  One of the nice things is that with the Dash mechanic you can play around Anger of the Gods very easily, and it’s often almost an exclusively one-sided wrath post-board.  The deck feels like a Burn deck often, just dashing out guys until you hit your permanent fliers, and then topping off with anything hasty.  There’s also many times where you just want to play your Mardu Scout as a Mardu Scout, it really just depends on your feeling out of the matchup and your role.

If I were to deviate from the above, it would probably be in favor of strengthening the devotion role early.  You’re very limited with options, but I like the concept of Mogis’s Warhound and Dragon Mantle.  You could cut the curve down, possibly even play something like Titan Strength, and go from a Red Aggro deck into payoff cards.  Or, you could focus on being exclusively a Dash deck.  Here are two possible examples of those concepts:

Mono Red Aggro by John Galli – Early Testing Block, 1/28/2015

4 Firedrinker Satyr
2 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Mardu Scout
2 Mogis’s Warhound
4 Prophetic Flamespeaker
4 Flamewake Phoenix
2 Goblin Heelcutter
2 Fanatic of Mogis
1 Stormbreath Dragon

2 Wild Slash
1 Searing Blood
1 Harness by Force
1 Dragon Mantle
2 Magma Jet
3 Lightning Strike
4 Titan’s Strength

1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
20 Mountain

Sideboard
3 Frenzied Goblin
3 Arc Lightning
1 Searing Blood
1 Peak Eruption
1 Magma Spray
2 Harness by Force
2 Outpost Siege
2 Shaman of the Great Hunt

RW Burn by John Galli – Early Testing Block, 1/28/2015

4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Mardu Scout
4 Flamewake Phoenix
4 Hushwing Gryff
1 Vaultbreaker

2 Wild Slash
1 Searing Blood
4 Valorous Stance
4 Lightning Strike
4 Magma Jet
3 Arc Lightning
3 Stoke the Flames
2 Outpost Siege

4 Temple of Triumph
4 Battlefield Forge
2 Plains
10 Mountain

Sideboard
3 Anger of the Gods
3 Erase
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Chained to the Rocks
2 Glare of Heresy
1 God’s Willing
1 Searing Blood
1 Mountain

Metagame Calls

Moving on from local decklists, we should look at the national metagame.  The results from this weekend indicated four key points to me.  Some of them were expected, others were a little out of left field.  Those points are:

1.)  RW Tokens and its offshoots are easily the most popular decks

2.)  Jeskai Tokens might just be a better version for the Metagame than RW Tokens

3.)  Sultai put up strong finishes and will likely be a popular pick amongst “pro” players

4.)  Abzan isn’t going anywhere, despite people thinking it’s dead because it didn’t get great new cards

How do we attack each of these?

1.)  RW Tokens is a very good deck because it’s aggressive and consistent, but most importantly it plays in levels.  Successful builds include bigger cards like Stormbreath Dragon and Chandra, so that if the beatdown plan doesn’t work they still have some bullets in the chamber.  Sam Pardee and Mike Flores helped to popularize the two central builds, and they were so good prior to Fate Reforged coming out that it was only natural for them to get a boost with strong choices in their colors.  I think from the weekend, I was impressed the most by the SCG Open’s second place finisher:

R/W Aggro
Danny Goldstein
2nd Place at StarCityGames.com Standard Open on 1/24/2015
Standard

Creatures (12)
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Monastery Mentor
3 Seeker of the Way
1 Soulfire Grand Master

Lands (23)
6 Mountain
5 Plains
4 Battlefield Forge
2 Mana Confluence
4 Temple of Triumph
2 Wind-Scarred Crag

Spells (25)
2 Outpost Siege
2 Collateral Damage
4 Lightning Strike
3 Magma Jet
4 Raise the Alarm
4 Stoke the Flames
2 Valorous Stance
4 Hordeling Outburst

Sideboard
2 Hushwing Gryff
1 Stormbreath Dragon
2 Erase
2 Magma Spray
2 Wild Slash
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 End Hostilities
2 Glare of Heresy

Danny has neither of the “long game” cards I mentioned in the maindeck, and instead moves them to the sideboard.  This was a good strategy for week 1, because staying aggressive always helps you punish people trying out new brews or playing lists that aren’t fully tuned.  He uses Outpost Siege as a way to get those last few points of damage in, whether it be exiling burn spells off the top, or slamming it before an incoming wrath / removal fest.  This deck puts on one of the fastest clocks the archetype is capable of playing, and aims to overload the board in game 1.  His Game 2 and 3 side cards basically just give him some outs to tough situations, or that extra smidge of reinforcement for the closer matchups.

Monastery Mentor and Goblin Rabblemaster are very fragile, but this deck excels at being able to play them later than turn 3 alongside of something for value.  Also, each one of the creatures he’s playing can go bananas if left alone, and given the high threshold that he has of them, it’s pretty much a guarantee that one will stick around.

What I don’t like about his deck, and where I think it can be attacked, is his sideboard.  Once people move to game 2, his deck is extremely vulnerable to 2-for-1s because of it’s reliance on being aggressive.  Cards like Elspeth and End Hostilities just don’t make a lot of sense, I’d rather stay aggressive but just get bigger or add layers of protection.  You can’t do enough with 15 cards to drastically change how this deck plays (unlike Abzan Aggro or Jeskai Aggro).  more Stormbreath Dragon, more Hushwing Gryff, Gods Willing, Abzan Advantage, and Arc Lightning/Barrage of Boulders are where I’d want to be.  The biggest obstacles I see are wraths, opposing tokens, and lifegain via Whip/Courser.  Abzan Advantage was an under the radar card this weekend, but it actually looks phenomenal here.  Killing a Courser and boosting your creature at the same time, killing their Whip, Doomwake Giant, or Eidolon, etc, etc, are all fantastic uses.  The +1/+1 counter helps you get over or around those cards and sweeper effects as well.

Heck, in the Jeskai Aggro deck I mentioned earlier, Abzan Adantage is even featured in the maindeck.  Doesn’t seem too bad to me, considering there’s targets in almost every archetype outside of Control, and even there you can still get a counter out of it.  Killing an opposing Chained to the Rocks or Heroic enchantment has got to feel great and very unexpected for your opponent.

Speaking of Heroic, W/R Heroic made a little bit of a splash.   Ultimately though, I don’t think it’s a deck I’d want to be on.  In my experience, I’ve often seen the W/U Heroic deck perform well because of its access to Ordeal of Thassa, letting you draw out of situations that other Aggro decks would be dead in, and Stubborn Denial which acts as extra Gods Willings and anti-wrath protection.  If this were Modern, I think the analogous example would be Burn vs UR Delver (with Treasure Cruise), except with the difference there being that Burn can substitute aggressive cards that actually make a difference.  W/R Heroic isn’t adding anything that knocks my socks off nor can’t be easily diffused.  That’s not to slight Zach Jesse, I think he built his list correctly and it looks powerful, it’s just not what I think gives you the best chance to win.

2.)  This is a good segway into Jeskai Tokens.  Often heralded as the archetype that “beats the field but loses to the end bosses”, Jeskai Tokens has similar resurgence ability to W/U Heroic.  Treasure Cruise is still legal in Standard, and no deck takes better advantage than this one.  What I think most pilots don’t realize is that this is not just a tokens/combo deck, it’s a burn deck.  Our PPTQ was won by Jeskai Tokens, and his match against my friend Brad in the top 4 showed not only high level play but also the ability of the deck to switch gears.  Brad had him overwhelmed on board in the final game with an early Brimaz and removal for his creatures, but Dan (the Jeskai Tokens pilot) was able to patiently dig through his deck with Magma Jets and Ascendancy triggers until he could count his opponent’s life total to zero.  There were many opportunities where there were lines to kill creatures and try to stabilize with a tokens plan, but Dan knew he would get there by staying to the path.  He’s not the only one who had a nice finish this weekend with it, the great Tom “The Boss” Ross picked up the deck too and landed in 13th place at the SCG.  Bottom line, Jeskai Tokens has the ability to go wide like RW, but it has more outs and more lines, and going into next week where people are going to have better lists, that might be the difference.

3.)  Sultai made a splash, with two top 8 placements at the SCG.  What’s scariest about these lists are that they are very different, with famous pro Gerard Fabiano choosing more of a control/graveyard manipulation route (essentially splashing for Sylvan Wayfinder), while Ali Aintrazi goes for valuetown.  Despite Fabiano winning, Aintrazi’s list seems to be the one amongst popular discussion and there’s not a single card in the list that isn’t straight nasty.  I’m not looking forward to a game in which my opponent plays a Frontier Siege into a Hornet Queen, Garruk, or Ugin.

So how do we beat this, especially if better players are going to pilot it this week?  Well, I’d start by looking at the cracks in the list:

Spells (20)
3 Frontier Siege
3 Dig Through Time
3 Hero’s Downfall
2 Sultai Charm
3 Crux of Fate
3 Thoughtseize
2 Treasure Cruise
1 Worst Fears

This screams out one thing at me.

S-L-O-W

The easiest way to beat 3 mana removal spells and singleton fatty butt creatures is to play things that make the opponent feel awful when he has to burn one of those removal spells on it.  OR, focus on the fact that Crux of Fate is a card this deck relies on, and beat that.  And another thing, this deck has TONS of enchantments that are pivotal to its survival.  Courser of Kruphix and Frontier Siege are two very important pieces, and if you take them away it’s just a Control deck with slow removal and an overly large top-end.  I don’t have the “beats Sultai” brew handy, but I’ll show you some cards that I think are important to consider when building for this weekend:

hordelingoutburstmercilousexecutionerflamewake phoenixabzanadvantagethoughtseizeridedowntymaretthemurderkingvalorousstanceboonoferebosheirofthewildsfrostwalkerstubborndenial

These aren’t the only cards in the discussion, and some of them may not be worthwhile, but at the very least I hope they pique the interest level.  I think each of them has a good standing going into the weekend, it will just depend on the archetype you put together with the information.  Each one of them either makes removal awkward or Courser/Caryatid, and that’s where you want to be against Sultai.

4.)  Abzan is still very much alive, and it put up plenty of strong finishes on the weekend.  People will still probably dog it as “not being the best deck anymore” because it didn’t get the almighty first place, but I think it’s still the number 1 deck you have to be focused on being able to beat.  Fleecemane Lion, Siege Rhino, and Bile Blight walk into plenty of free wins, so a gameplan is a must.

And unfortunately, speaking of awkward, there’s a tension Abzan creates with the rest of the field.  It’s right in the middle of the speed spectrum, forcing you to pick a side.  I think the correct side is still to stay fast, but in order to keep Abzan from overpowering you you’re going to need the correct pinpoint removal for them.  Really, two cards stand out to me this weekend because of how good they are against all three major archetypes (tokens, sultai ramp/control, abzan):

arclightningvalorousstance

Yes I’ve already mentioned these cards, but I’m bringing them back because they are “live” in any of those matches and thus I think they are must plays if you are in those colors.  Arc Lightning isn’t great against Abzan as it’s a little slow, and there’s not a ton of targets against Sultai, but it’s fantastic against tokens and it kills both Fleecemane Lion and Rakshasa, while comboing with other damage sources elsewhere.

I’ll leave you all with two spicy lists I saw this week that both top 4’d a PPTQ.  New blood in the water:

BR Aggro, 4th Place PPTQ

Maindeck
4 Bloodsoaked Champion
2 Gnarled Scarhide
1 Frenzied Goblin
2 Mardu Scout
3 Brain Maggot
3 Tymaret, the Murder King
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
2 Goblin Heelcutter
4 Brutal Hordechief

3 Lightning Strike
3 Hordeling Outburst
2 Hero’s Downfall
4 Stoke The Flames

23 lands (unknown)

Sideboard
3 Thoughtseize
2 Wild Slash
1 Harness by Force
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
2 Siege Outpost
3 Bile Blight
2 Hammer of Purphoros

Mono Black Aggro, 1st Place PPTQ

4 Tormented Hero
4 Gnarled Scarhide
4 Bloodsoaked Champion
4 Spiteful Returned
4 Pain Seer
4 Mardu Strike Leader
4 Mogis’ Marauder
2 Brutal Hordechief

1 Murderous Cut
3 Bile Blight
2 Hero’s Downfall
2 Thoughtseize

13 Swamps
1 Mountain
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Caves of Koilos

Sideboard
3 Agent of Erebos
1 Bile Blight
2 Thoughtseize
2 Merciless Executioner
4 Pharika’s Cure
2 Erebos, God of the Dead
1 Grim Haruspex

As Always, thank you for reading,

And Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning