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

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Making The Correct Choice

ashcloudphoenixwallpaper

Making the Correct Choice

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

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

RG Aggro by Red Deck Winning

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

4 Lightning Strike
4 Crater’s Claws

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

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

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

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

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

hushwinggryff

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Seeker of the Way
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Ashcloud Phoenix

3 Chandra, Pyromaster
3 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Did I Learn

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

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

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

As always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

The Impact Of Khans

cratersclawswallpaper

The Impact Of Khans

When we last left off, I was discussing the upcoming Standard format and what may be in store for the future.  The last few weeks as usual have been a whirlwind, in which I won the second proxy tournament at our LGS, was able to go to the StarCityGames Open in Indianapolis at the last minute to break in the new season, won a gameday, and then attended the Open in Minneapolis this previous weekend.  The life of a Magic grinder is certainly never dull.  I’d like now to talk a little bit about each of the formats:

Standard

In the second proxy tournament just before Khans was released, I was able to 4-0 the tournament with Mardu Midrange.  It was an update on the build I had been tweaking with 4 maindeck Anger of the Gods into the usual suspects of Goblin Rabblemaster, Butcher of the Horde, and Sarkhan.  Here is that list that I played at SCG Indianapolis that following weekend:

Mardu Midrange – John Galli, 70th place of 546 StarCityGames Indianapolis Open

Maindeck

3 Master of the Feast
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Butcher of the Horde

4 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

4 Crackling Doom
4 Hero’s Downfall
4 Anger of the Gods
3 Lightning Strike
3 Magma Jet
2 Mardu Charm

2 Battlefield Forge
2 Caves of Koilos
2 Swamp
2 Mountain
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Temple of Triumph
4 Temple of Malice
4 Temple of Silence

Sideboard
4 Nyx-Fleece Ram
2 Suspension Field
2 Reprisal
4 Thoughtseize
1 Despise
1 Utter End
1 Banishing Light

The list was designed to attack the biggest deck of the format in playtesting which seemed to be Mono Green Devotion, and then be able to put pressure on the rest.  As an aside, the Aggro matchup was extremely favorable due to the Mardu Charms and the Angers.  The plan actually was correct, as SCG Indy in particular was flooded with Green Devotion decks, but unfortunately I lost round 1 to land troubles in game 3 and was then unable to get paired against it for the rest of the tournament (since they were all winning).  I was happy to still finish 7-3, although just missed the cash on tiebreakers.  My losses were to BUG Control, Temur Monsters, and the Mardu Mirror.  The BUG Control deck was from the first round and it almost assuredly would have gone the other way had the lands been better.  Temur was a bad matchup, I knew that going in and over the course of the next few weeks it would continue to beat just about anything I put together.  The combination of Elvish Mystic into their threats was very difficult to handle from a tempo perspective, so it’d often come down to me winning the games where they didn’t have it or where I got to cast the first spell, or losing the ones where it was the opposite.  The Mardu Mirror is extremely grindy and my opponent had a lot of favorable cards for that particular matchup, such as Read the Bones and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.

After the tournament I continued heavy playtesting and started noticing that the creatures in Mardu were very easily 1-for-1’d and that I probably needed to just take them out.  Master of the Feast was already the worst card from my Indy list, with again the theory being that he’s good against Green Devotion, Mono Red, and Stormbreath Dragon (which he is), but he’s also terrible against anything with Black removal.  This is too much of a liability in this format, especially with Abzan and Mardu now being very popular decks.  I could still see him as a sideboard option since he has the element of surprise, but it does also still suck to give your opponent cards.  The theory there too was that the cards they draw have to be kill spells for him, which some decks just don’t have.

Rabblemaster and Butcher, which have made appearances in the recent Nelson list, were suffering the same fate, and especially so in my relatively light creature build since they were some of the only targets that would be on the board.  So after noticing all this, I gravitated towards what was working and that was the planeswalkers.  I eventually settled on Mardu Control, and then saw a guy take down our TCG State Championship with a similar build.  That pretty much confirmed for me that it was correct at the time, so I took it to our LGS and lost in the finals of a win-a-box tournament against (surprise) Temur.  Here is that list:

Mardu Control – John Galli, 3-1 win-a-box Mox Mania

Maindeck

3 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
4 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

4 Anger of the Gods
4 Crackling Doom
2 End Hostilities
4 Hero’s Downfall
4 Lightning Strike
4 Magma Jet
1 Utter End
2 Mardu Charm

3 Battlefield Forge
3 Caves of Koilos
2 Swamp
2 Mountain
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Temple of Triumph
4 Temple of Malice
4 Temple of Silence

Sideboard
1 End Hostilities
4 Nyx-Fleece Ram
2 Reprisal
2 Suspension Field
1 Banishing Light
1 Empty the Pits
3 Thoughtseize
1 Read the Bones

At this point it was drilled into me that this archetype had some game to it, and that I just needed to fix matchups.  The following weekend Worlds happened, and we were able to see the first steps into solidifying a new format.  The pros had tweaked much of the expected builds, including Mardu Control which Levy’s team put together.  Their focus was more on Chandra, Pyromaster, but I still felt and feel to this day that Sorin is a much better planeswalker in the current metagame.  Chandra is fantastic, and I think she has a place, probably even in this style of list, but ignoring Sorin is a mistake.  That card is continually being valued too low, as anything that makes the opponent have to have two removal spells or a combination of attacks and removal is where you want to be.  Ultimately down the road I increased the Sorin count to 3 in the maindeck, and also added Chandra, but it all ended up being a moot point as this wasn’t the deck I stayed with.  There may be room for this archetype, as it can overpower many decks, but it has a very rough game against Control and against Temur Monsters.  I lost again to Temur at SCG States, and that was the final dagger in me playing it.  If you decide to go this route, I’d prepare your cards better for that matchup, or at least have a practiced sideboard plan that is better than my approach.

Another focus of mine had been on Mono Red.  Tom’s Boss Sligh was at it again and has had some absolutely phenomenal success in the last two weeks.  The problem for me was that I couldn’t figure out how he was winning, as his stock 75 was not doing well against my playtesting group.  I had my own list which was doing mostly well, but in general I felt the archetype was easily punished and got into too many games where you were just a few life points short of killing them.  I mean, that’s the essence of playing Mono Red, but the effect felt especially emphasized with Boss Sligh.  If you’ve read my articles, you know I prefer more of a Red Aggro deck with some “game” to it, but I couldn’t get that working for the life of me so I think Boss Sligh is just better positioned due to its speed against a relatively clunky metagame.  One thing I agreed with Tom on was no Rabblemaster in the maindeck.  The card is actually just the slowest card in Boss Sligh and easily brickwalled or killed, so Hordeling Outburst ends up being the much more efficient better choice.  You basically just want to max out on one drops in this deck, and have everything help your goal of pushing through.  That doesn’t mean you need to play reckless and flood the board only to walk into an Anger of the Gods, but it’s still style of cards that you want to have.  Here is my Mono Red list:

Mono Red Aggro – John Galli, Test Block

4 Akroan Crusader
4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Foundry Street Denizen
4 Monastery Swiftspear
3 Frenzied Goblin

1 Hall of Triumph

4 Hordeling Outburst
4 Titan’s Strength
4 Hammerhand
4 Dragon Mantle
4 Stoke the Flames
1 Lightning Strike

19 Mountain

Sideboard
2 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Searing Blood
1 Magma Spray
1  Coordinated Assault
1 Scouring Sands
1 Harness by Force
2 Magma Jet

I like Hordeling Outburst as a card.  I believe it’s one of the best cards in Standard right now, and very closely resembles the power level that Spectral Procession had when it was in Standard.  Being able to play it on an empty board does a number of things; it forces your opponent into considering sweepers when you’ve only cast one spell, it pressures other opponents who may have a big ground fattie into trying to get a mass removal spell or dump their hand, and it combos with a large number of cards in your deck.  From Hall of Triumph, to Stoke the Flames, to Foundry Street Denizen, to Monastery Swiftspear, to Goblin Rabblemaster, Hordeling proves its weight in gold.  While Tom may be correct that you only want two, I was happy to see this card everytime I cast it in any of my decks, but especially so in Mono Red where many times it just puts a dagger in the unprepared opponent.  There’s many decks like Jeskai Aggro which just hate to see this card because they can’t effectively race it.

I’ve included a few Rabblemasters in the sideboard, and this is there to punish decks which are vulnerable to him.  Ignoring him completely as a card when you’re in Red is usually wrong, as he’s absolutely insane in a vacuum and there’s many decks that give you that window.  If your opponent is light on removal or presents a deck in which you can control their defense, he shines greater than any other card choice you could make.  Just an aside, in round 1 at SCG Indy, I mulled to 5 on three one-landers, ended up drawing only a few lands and Rabblemasters, and won the game.  That is how powerful he is, you just play him, get your popcorn out, and watch the movie unfold.

After States had passed I awaited more results before deciding what to do next.  Sure enough, the Pros came through again with fresh ideas to wet the appetite.  As I watched the Grand Prix Los Angeles stream, I saw Brad Nelson tearing it up with a new build of Mardu Midrange.  He was playing my above mentioned favorite card, and he was also playing the creatures which I had abandoned but desperately wanted to find a shell for.  The deck looked incredible on camera and I knew right away that I wanted to build it.  I would have gone that day to Gameday, but I was overdue for spending quality time with my wife and we were able to see some great views in LaCrosse, WI instead.  I mean, sometimes you just gotta put the cards down so you can see stuff like this:

vistaview

Granddad Bluffs, Lacrosse, WI

Sunday morning I looked over the written coverage and scoured the internet for information on Nelson’s list, but sadly none of my usual sources had the full 75.  I pieced together 90% of it from what I saw on stream and coverage, and went to the second Gameday event at my LGS.  We had 20 people, five rounds and a cut to top 8.  This list had its clunky moments but otherwise shined bright and carried me to a victory.  I didn’t lose a single match, going 3-0 in the swiss, double drawing into top 8, then winning all three rounds in top 8.  On the day I beat Jeskai Aggro, RW Tokens, Mardu Mirror, Abzan Midrange, Abzan Midrange, and GR Monsters.  Here is Brad Nelson’s list for those who’ve been living under a “roc”:

Mardu Midrange – Brad Nelson, Top 8 Grand Prix Los Angeles

Maindeck

4 Seeker of the Way
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Butcher of the Horde
3 Wingmate Roc

3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
1 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

4 Hordeling Outburst
4 Lightning Strike
4 Crackling Doom
1 Murderous Cut
3 Chained to the Rocks

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

Sideboard (15)
2 Magma Spray
3 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 Glare of Heresy
2 End Hostilities
2 Read the Bones
2 Banishing Light

I was planning to play it again for SCG Minneapolis which my friends had convinced me on since it was my birthday weekend and since it wasn’t too hard to convince a Magic-addict like me.  I did hold out the reservation to play something else though, since we had a big crew of guys going and had just about every deck at our disposal.  The plan was to get to Minneapolis early in the day on Friday and test most of the afternoon to figure out what we liked in the format.  I was also shaky on Mardu after going 0-2 drop during the week leading up to the SCG in which I lost both rounds to Jeskai Aggro.  They seemed to be the more efficient burn deck much of the time, and despite all the lifegain in Nelson’s list I wasn’t too sure how to address that issue.

We arrived at our hotel in Minneapolis around 4:30/5:00pm, and began to test for what would ultimately be 7 hours with a dinner break.  This gave us some very good sample sets, where we recorded match results both pre and post board and threw everything in Standard at each other until we had a good idea of what we liked.  Nelson’s list was just doing average or below average, and both the Jeskai and Sultai lists in our room were overperforming.  I had proxied up a RW Midrange build that I had been working on the last few weeks, but it too was losing, except when sideboarded.  We took our dinner break, getting some delicious Benihanas Hibachi:

benihana

After scarfing down eyes-shutting-it’s-so-good Filet Mignon and Fried Rice, we got back to the testing.  Since my RW deck had been doing well post-board, I decided to just change the maindeck to reflect what I was doing with my sideboard.  The deck had similarities to the RW deck of Adrian Sullivan’s that I had played last season, as well as Brad Nelson’s list from the Pro Tour and David Fulk’s list from SCG Edison.  Sullivan’s list had an Aggro approach game 1, with a transformational sideboard into Control, whereas Fulk’s list was the opposite.  I felt like you needed to be somewhere inbetween, and I also just wanted to jam the Red cards I felt were the most fun and powerful in the meta.  I ultimately settled on this list after it was tearing through our playtesting gauntlet:

RW Midrange – John Galli, SCG Minneapolis

Maindeck

3 Seeker of the Way
4 Ashcloud Phoenix

3 Hordeling Outburst
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
4 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

1 Arc Lightning
4 Lightning Strike
2 Searing Blood
2 Magma Jet
4 Stoke the Flames
2 Fated Conflagration
4 Chained to the Rocks
1 Banishing Light

4 Temple of Triumph
2 Wind-Scarred Crag
4 Battlefield Forge
3 Plains
11 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Hushwing Gryff
1 Purphoros, God of the Forge
1 Goblin Rabblemaster
1 End Hostilities
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Magma Spray
1 Arc Lightning
1 Banishing Light
1 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
1 Temple of Silence

The list was sweet, I had already partially fell in love with Ashcloud Phoenix from prior testing but it came into its own with this build.  You punished peoples early plays since this format is all about tempo, and then you were able to cast cards which were very difficult to get rid of on a 1-for-1 basis.  People might balk at cards like Fated Conflagration, but this card answers some of the big pillars in the format such as Siege Rhino, Polukranos, Ashiok, Elspeth, Stormbreath, and Mantis Rider.  Having the extra scry is almost always an option, and it enables you to get to a point where you can play two spells a turn which is another key to this format.

I wanted to play Seeker because the card is instrumental in helping you buy time in a race.  If he isn’t killed, you often end up gaining an obscene amount of life with him, with several games clocking in at 12-20 life points gained.  The deck has a great deal of synergy to allow you to play him on turn 2 and then followup with a prowess bonus.  It’s possible you want 4, but he’s one of the worst cards to draw late so I mised and just ran enough that I’d see him often but not all the time.

One of the minor points in the maindeck is the 1-of Arc Lightning.  I didn’t want an overcosted burn spell, but I kept noticing that I really wanted Lightning Strike since there are quite a few troublesome three toughness creatures in Standard.  Thus, I cut my fourth Outburst and jammed the Arc Lightning which proved itself time and time again as being a great 5th Strike.

I started out 1-0 in the tournament, but ultimately dropped at 2-3.  There were a few issues with the list, but it was mostly compacted by absolutely terrible mulligans, poor draws, and great openers by my opponents.  I don’t like blaming losses on mulligans, as there is always more to it, but variance was not in my favor on Saturday.  My third round Abzan opponent drew three Siege Rhinos in game 1 that I had to contend with, and I almost did, except I was stuck on two Red sources for Fated Conflagration which otherwise would have turned around the game.  Bottom line, the results from testing were largely thrown to the wind as I just couldn’t piece together what I needed.

The problems with the list were mainly the following, some of which lead to the mulligans:  The deck needs the 25th land maindeck.  I had too many draws where I couldn’t get enough land, and in testing I had been waffling back and forth on the count; I should have gone with the latter.  Aside from that, the list needs a plan for the control decks, as I played UB Control in my last round and got absolutely demolished.  I originally had Firedrinkers in the sideboard and some more ideas against it, but I expected to see 0-1 Control opponents over the course of the tournament so I didn’t want to devote much to stopping them.  In the future, I’d probably add Firedrinker back in, or find a different line against them.  My playtesting partners were telling me to play Soldier of the Pantheon, as a hedge against both Control and all the multi-color decks, and it’s possible this is correct.  The problem with Soldier is that he requires a much greedier manabase, but I need to change it anyway.  I definitely should have ran at least 1 or 2 Mana Confluence in place of the plains and/or a mountain.

I never felt the extra control elements in the board were helpful.  The original plan was to sideboard into a more aggressive deck against many opponents, and to sideboard into more control options than I already had in the maindeck against others.  I also included a “tokens package” with Purphoros, Elspeth, and Goblin Rabblemaster because I found in testing that cards like Purphoros were very difficult to get rid of for many decks and already synergized with cards in my maindeck like Hordeling Outburst.  That plan doesn’t come in against the majority of the field, so it’s probably something that can be discarded (or reinforced).  One option I had considered but didn’t put in place was to pitch the control cards in the board and instead play more hasty threats like Stormbreath Dragon.  He’s already well positioned by being protection from a color that is in multiple top decks in the format, and he’s another threat to play after your removal spells.

So as you can see, there are many ideas you can carry on for this deck, and I implore you to tinker with it if the archetype looks at all interesting.  I really liked it in playtesting and am hoping I can try and improve it rather than abandon the idea all together.  One last thing, make sure to board out Chained to the Rocks against decks that you think will bring hate in for it.  They will indeed, and you can usually supplement the loss with other removal out of the board that isn’t vulnerable to the same removal spells.

Modern and Legacy

I played in the Modern IQ at SCG Indy, running the RWB burn deck that I had been on last season.  Ultimately I dropped the Vexing Devil’s after the tournament for Monastery Swiftspear, but I think after further testing that I like Devil better.  It was a good time, and the deck started out 3-1, but I had some land trouble again in round 5 and lost a close one to UWR.  Following that tournament, I intended to play in the Modern IQ at SCG Minneapolis, but the format has now warped around a card that I think needs to see immediate ban:

treasurecruise

Just look at the SCG results from the past two weekends alone, ignoring the craziness on MTGO, and the picture is pretty clear.  Splashing U is easy, and this card is Ancestral Recall.  I messed around with it in my Burn list, but ultimately didn’t put a lot of time into the process and was mostly uninterested in playing in a semi-broken format.  I’m also not wild about Jeskai combo being a thing, even if it’s not too popular in paper Magic.

People might have differing opinions, but I expect that Treasure Cruise will get banned in both Modern and Legacy with the next release from Wizards.  Until then, I’m on a semi-hiatus from Modern and Legacy set aside a few events I want to attend.  In the meantime, if you want to play Burn, I’d probably lean towards one of the lists that top 8’d this weekend in Minneapolis.

Or you could play Ryan Hipp’s deck, since he’s a savage and took down the Modern IQ at both SCG Opens I was at.  It has blue in it, so you know my feelings, but heck he knows how to build a winner:

Blue Moon – Ryan Hipp, 1st Place at BOTH StarCityGames Open Indianapolis and Minneapolis

Maindeck

4 Snapcaster Mage
2 Vendilion Clique

1 Batterskull
2 Vedalken Shackles
3 Blood Moon
4 Cryptic Command
1 Dig Through Time
2 Electrolyze
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Mana Leak
3 Remand
3 Spell Snare
3 Vapor Snag
4 Serum Visions

8 Island
1 Mountain
2 Flooded Strand
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Steam Vents

Sideboard
1 Batterskull
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Spellskite
1 Blood Moon
1 Counterflux
1 Magma Spray
2 Negate
1 Keranos, God of Storms
3 Anger of the Gods
2 Vandalblast

I’m not sure how well positioned this deck is with so many Red decks and UR Delver decks making up the current Modern field, but he managed to get through all of that along with punishing fair decks with Blood Moon.  I think it’s the numbers game here in terms of how many of each spell he runs and the efficiency of the choices he makes.  Certainly worth a look and I’ve always considered Blue Moon to be one of the better decks in the field.

Legacy is in much the same state as Modern, with Treasure Cruise enabling Delver decks to outlast many opponents and find the key counterspells they need in many situations.  My good friend and once an author for this website Darrel Feltner was sadly at the losing end of this effect on Sunday, as he lost in the finals of the SCG Open with his Miracles deck.  I’m proud of him and it’s great to see the finish because he is one of the best players in Madison I know and he knows his deck in and out like no one else set aside a few others in the country.  He lost to UWR Delver, and while he drew poorly and his opponent drew well, it was obvious in the coverage how powerful Treasure Cruise was.  It wasn’t the key to the match, but it was unbalanced and you could clearly tell.

Khans Limited

So instead of playing Modern and Legacy this past Sunday, I decided to jam a bunch of drafts as well as a two-headed giant tournament.  I played in two drafts on Saturday, one on Sunday, and the 2HG Sealed.  I won one of the drafts, and almost made it to the finals of another.  The format is great, a ton of fun and so many different directions you can go.  My best advice is my usual advice for draft, but even stronger with this set, draft what seems naturally good as you’re going through the packs.  Don’t try to force an archetype or wedge, unless you have a specific strategy that you know the absolute ins and outs of.  I tried to go 5-color in my first draft, after reading Ari Lax’s articles on draft, but it was a disaster.  I know I didn’t execute it well, but its just a complicated ordeal and you may or may not get the payoff cards you need.  I think given 15-20 drafts that I could figure out the strategy, but it seemed easier just to draft a good deck in what was available.  My next draft was the one I won, on a Mardu plan splashing for a fourth color, followed by my almost-finals deck in Abzan.  All the clans feel well balanced, but there are certain cards I’d emphasize.

First, play as many of the outlast guys as you can.  Most of them are great, and you should have time to outlast them almost every turn if you play correctly.  The 2/3’s in this format are of premium value, specifically the following:

mer-eknightbladeabzanfalconeralabasterkirin

Evasion is big in Khans, along with the ability to successfully block a Morph creature and not lose your guy.  The above cards have those characteristics in some form, and the first one helps with the big Green decks floating around.

Draft removal.  This set has a ton of it, and we’re coming off multiple blocks where there was almost no removal in limited.  People forget that it’s great when it’s available, so capitalize on this fact.  Cards like these are incredible:

murderouscutburnawaysavagepunchkillshotforceaway

Draft a lot of morphs, as most of them are useable in both modes and combine well with other build around cards like Ghostfire Blade and Secret Plans.  Try to ignore the more vanilla ones, as you usually want to maximize on the two drops available.  I don’t like cards like Valley Dasher, but otherwise anything that costs two mana and has some basic utility is usually a must play.  You come down a turn earlier then the morphs and can trade with them, and mid game you can play two to three spells a turn which is a great way to gain tempo advantage.

Sultai is an interesting anomaly from the rest of the wedges.  It’s very strong, but utilizes all the delve cards instead, so you’re basically hard drafting any of those support pieces you can once you know you’re going in those colors.  Cards like this are very difficult to beat:

necropolisfiend

If you’re in Temur, you’re also game planning slightly different.  Here, the big Green fatties become hyper-relevant, where all of a sudden the generic morphs become your way to turn the game around and invalidate your opponent’s small critters.  I think the biggest card that I usually see in Temur is this one:

sultaiflayer

That 4 life adds up, and the fact that it includes itself is the difference between being a simple support card vs a build around card.

There’s more that I could go on ad nauseum about when it comes to Khans Limited, but alas this article is already getting lengthy.  I hope this gives you some perspective of how I’m approaching the game at the moment.

Thank you as always readers for your support and patience.  I appreciate all the feedback and hopefully I can keep the fire going!

Until next time,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

Taking 9th Place at the StarCityGames Edison Open: Feature Article by Ben Schoenbrun

monasteryswiftspearwallpaper

I recently had the pleasure of playing some test games against Ben Schoenbrun, the 9th place finisher at the SCG Edison open from this past weekend.  He wrote a report but had not had it published yet and I thought that this site fit the bill quite well.  He played Mono Red Aggro, and would like to tell you all about how to light a good fire.

Taking 9th Place at the StarCityGames Edison Open by Ben Schoenbrun

benschoenbrun

Hello All!  My name is Ben Schoenbrun and I got my background in strategy games by playing competitive Scrabble, and am regularly ranked within the top 100 Scrabble players in North America. I started playing Magic seriously during college in 2012, partially for social reasons and partially to solidify strategic elements that would help me with Scrabble.  I have since been trying to balance competitive Scrabble and Magic, as well as graduate school and hunt for jobs. I gained a reputation as a red mage after I drafted red-white heroic one too many times.

Since my first StarCityGames Open went so well, I thought it might be fun to write a tournament report.

In the weeks coming up to the tournament, I knew that I wanted to play a red aggro deck. I felt it would be a very safe choice, it fits my playstyle, and it would not be terribly difficult to build or to find the cards for quickly after rotation. I also suck at building manabases so 20 mountains seemed like something that I couldn’t screw up. I did most of my testing on Cockatrice, with a bit of testing at my local game store Clarkson’s Corner just to make sure my deck measured up when testing against people I know the general skill level of. I started with the mono red list found in this article:

http://www.channelfireball.com/articles/owens-a-win-khans-standard/

That deck did not win very many games. It kept getting stonewalled by Caryatid/Courser, and as I feared, War-Name Aspirant was incredibly awkward with Foundry Street Denizen. I knew that I would have to take the deck in a different direction if I wanted to stand a chance against Courser decks. I decided that a Sligh approach would work a lot better. After all, why play 8 one-drops when you could be playing 27? 😀 I found that this approach helped me get past Courser/Caryatid better while also having a lot of game against other aggro decks. I also made it a point to make sure I understood how to play post sideboard games and properly play around Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods. I decided early on that I wouldn’t play around these cards game 1 unless it is incredibly obvious that they have them, and if they blow me out, so be it.

Here is the list that I eventually settled on:

Mono Red Aggro
Ben Schoenbrun
9th Place at StarCityGames.com Standard Open on 9/27/2014

Maindeck
4 Akroan Crusader
4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Foundry Street Denizen
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Monastery Swiftspear
2 Mogis’s Warhound

4 Dragon Mantle
3 Hammerhand
2 Searing Blood
4 Stoke the Flames
4 Titan’s Strength
1 Hall of Triumph

20 Mountain

Sideboard
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
2 Coordinated Assault
2 Magma Spray
2 Searing Blood
1 Hall of Triumph
2 Hammer of Purphoros
2 Arc Lightning

I decided on Searing Bloods over Lightning Strikes because they are better against the aggressive decks while not being that much worse against the Courser decks. Moving forward, I would play 3-4 Lightning Strikes maindeck since it appears that Mantis Rider is in fact a thing, and my deck felt a bit light on reach. Otherwise, I was pretty happy with most of my card choices and felt that I predicted the meta fairly well. Anyways, on to the matches!

Round 1: Mark Webb with RW Aggro:

I lost the die roll. Game 1 His 3 lands were Mana Confluence and 2 Battlefield Forges, and that ended up making the difference. Game 2 I took a mulligan, got stuck on 2 lands, and he played a well-timed Rabblemaster when I ran out of burn. Game 3 I was on the play, and I was the one able to land an unopposed Rabblemaster.

1-0.

Round 2: Taylor Rowe with Naya Monsters:

I lost the die roll. I don’t remember too many of the details in this game, but I know I won games 1 and 3, and game 2 he was able to monstrous Polukranos in time to stabilize the board.

2-0.

Round 3: Daniel Antony with Mono Green Devotion:

Daniel is from the Jersey area and works at TOGIT (The Only Game in Town.) We chatted a bit about our local stores, our testing, and our experiences playing magic before and inbetween games. I lost the die roll. Game one he managed to monstrous Polukranos for a lot before I was able to take over the game. Game 2 I was able to take over after some fortunate draws. Game 3 I was able to burn him out with a double Searing Blood on a Courser of Kruphix. This was a matchup I was hoping to avoid, and I was quite fortunate to be able to get it, especially since he maindecked 3 Nylea’s Disciples and sided another, none of which he saw in our 3 games.

3-0.

Round 4: Ross Merriam with G/B Devotion:

I’m a big fan of Ross’s articles on StarCityGames, and I genuinely feel they helped me improve as a player. So I was happy to play against him; albeit nervous. It probably didn’t help that we were called to the feature match area! I won the die roll and he took a mulligan. I kept a fairly good hand and drew quite well, but I miscounted and thought I had him dead when I actually put him to a virtual 1 life (I held a Titan’s Strength instead of playing it). Oh well, I’ll get him next turn. Genesis Hydra for 5 into Doomwake Giant you say? Well, crap. Game 2 I kept a mediocre hand and got demolished by Doomwake Giant again. Turns out that card is good against a deck full of 1/1’s and 2/2’s. We chatted for a bit after the game and I also talked with the table judge, who was very nice.

3-1.

Round 5: Micah Maben with Mono Black Aggro:

Micah is a kid from NYC . I lost the die roll. I was quite happy to see him lead with Swamp into Tormented Hero, since I was like 15-0 against this deck on Cockatrice. Game 1 I was able to excecute my baseline gameplan which is more powerful than the mono black aggro deck’s. Game 2 I took a mulligan and wasn’t able to stick a creature on the board. Game 3 I was just faster than him again, and I blew him out with a well timed Arc Lightning.

4-1.

Round 6: Joseph Vazquez with Junk Midrange:

I knew I had seen Joseph’s name somewhere, and it turns out he is the co-owner of Get There Games on Staten Island. I won the die roll. Unfortunately for Joseph, he flooded out horribly game 1 and got land screwed game 2. Sorry dude.

5-1.

Round 7: Charlie Rhinehart with BW Roc Midrange:

Another StarCityGames Open champion! I lost the die roll. Game 1 he had a turn 2 Nyx-Fleece Ram and was able to stall the game out long enough to land a Sorin, Solemn Visitor and a Wingmate Roc. On the car ride up, I was talking to my friend about whether Sorin’s +1 ability works on creatures that enter the battlefield after the ability activates. It turns out the judges also had some confusion. One of them ruled that it did work that way in an earlier round, and Charlie had been playing as such, but I asked a judge just to make sure, and it turns out that it doesn’t work that way. The head judge told Charlie that he understood that such a mistake was made. It didn’t really matter though, as I scooped up my cards shortly afterwards. Game 2 I topdecked a Rabblemaster right after he played Drown in Sorrow. Mise. Game 3 he played 2 Thoughtseizes, and he knew my hand was Monastery Swiftspear and Hammerhand. He left up open Bile Blight mana and I topdecked a Titan’s Strength to blow him out. I did, however, forget that my creature got -3-3 and I dealt Charlie 3 too many points of damage. If you’re reading this Charlie, sorry about that. I managed to win from there.

6-1.

Round 8: David Beaudrie with Junk Midrange:

I won the die roll. Game 1 I missed a Swiftspear trigger which may have made the difference in the game. I think I missed like 10 triggers this tournament. Game 2 he plays Drown in Sorrow forgetting that I have Hall of Triumph in play and I beat him to death with Eidolon of the Great Revel and Goblin Rabblemaster. Game 3 he mulls to 5 and keeps a 1 lander and I win on turn 4.

7-1.

Round 9: David Fulk with R/W Control:

I lost the die roll. David is from Virginia, and needed to get some testing in for the Pro Tour Honolulu. Uh oh… We start the game and he has a red white deck but isn’t playing creatures. Double uh oh… I try to play around Anger of the Gods and Elspeth as best I can, but he has 4 and 4 maindeck, and it turns out I have trouble beating those cards. If I could’ve designed my opponent’s deck to beat mine, this would be it. Game 2 doesn’t go much better. I also missed an Eidolon trigger that ended up not mattering. Did I mention I miss a lot of triggers?

7-2.

I’m probably dead for top 8 here, but I can draw into top 32, which is still good for $100 and 4 open points (which I will probably never use). My opponent wants to play it out since he thinks he can make it.

Round 10: David Gross with Naya Midrange:

I lost the die roll. Game 1 he was able to stabilize with Ajani and kill me with a Fleecemane Lion. Game 2 I keep a hand with Akroan Crusader, 1 land, and 2 Titan’s Strengths. I deal 9 damage to him on turn 2, and my friend watching says he could’ve sworn I was playing Legacy RDW. He Angers me on turn 3 and then I play Rabblemaster and he scoops. THIS DECK IS SWEET!!! Game 3 I keep a much fairer hand and manage to burn him out before he gets enough land to blow up my board with Polukranos.

8-2. 9th Place.

9th Place is a tad bit disappointing, but still very good for my first Open. I obviously had to run well to get that result. All of my opponents were very nice as well, and It was great catching up with some friends from Rochester. Congrats to Mario Martinez on the top 8 and Kevin Jones on winning the whole thing!

– Ben Schoenbrun

– Red Deck Winning

Past, Present, and Future

kothofthehammerwallpaper

Past, Present, and Future

It is the end of a season.  It is almost time for Worlds.  It is the beginning of a new path for Magic.  For those of you who were online yesterday, you probably saw the news regarding the changing of Magic’s set design and rotation.  I’ll touch a bit upon that along with going over my tournament weekend and where I’m at with decks in all formats.  It’s been a while since I’ve had an article and you readers are overdue for some updates.  Without further adou. . .

Past

This past weekend I attended two pro tour qualifiers in my area, and both went pretty well with narrow misses at obtaining my longtime goal.  I’m sad that the Modern season is over, but the experiences I’ve had between last season and this one have truly made me love the format.  Wizards did a great job at creating a format where a wide open metagame can exist, and where new ideas are birthed at an almost constant rate.  Every Modern tournament I’ve been to I’ve played against at least five or six different archetypes, and the vast majority of them have been competitive.  If you’re reading my articles and haven’t played the format much, you should pick it up today.  The season might be over but it’s absolutely worth your time.

After my last article and tournament, I became quite determined to get over the hump in my game.  I knew the issue for me was practice time and comfort level, and as limited as my time and money is if I was going to do well in the upcoming weeks, I’d need to address the issue.  I doubled my efforts on Cockatrice, playing for several hours almost every day, waking up early, going to bed late at night, playing at lunch, basically whenever I could squeeze in time between other stuff I had going on.  I tried to engage some of my fellow burn players a bit more online and in person, bouncing off ideas and questions I had.  I proxied up the big archetypes I was having trouble with, gold-fished some and practiced live matches with others.

Needless to say, the efforts paid off.  I doubted whether it was worth the time or not, but this weekend proved to me that it makes the difference.  I ran the same 75 cards as last time, changing out 1 card on Sunday, and felt very comfortable piloting it other than some grave play mistakes on occasion or some nervous matches when I was in contention.

Saturday’s PTQ was in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin at a roller rink.  The host Bryant Cobarrubias was welcoming and friendly and overall made the tournament go smoother than many others.  It was a refreshing change from the last one I went to in Chicago, despite having disco balls above our heads, intimate mood lighting, and a chilly AC.  The scene was pretty funny, and as my wife later put it “you guys look like you’re doing male speed dating”.

FonDuLacMagic
(Photo Credit:  Bryant Cobarrubias)

The tournament started off well with a win against a Utopia Sprawl Primeval Titan deck.  It was a younger kid playing the deck which was part brew, part netdeck, and I lost game 2 due to repeat Primal Commands only because I didn’t realize he had them.  Fortunately his deck was just a turn or two slow, and I was able to take the match.  That largely is the story of why this particular build of Burn I believe is the best right now, because you’re simply a turn faster than almost everything in this format set aside Affinity, Infect, Storm, etc.  All the fair decks like Jund, Junk, and Pod are expending heavy resources like Abrupt Decay and Thoughtseize to counteract threats that only cost you one mana and do more than that in damage.  Plus, with the reliance on shock lands being so heavy in this format, your opponent has often done a quarter of the job for you in the first few turns.  A lot of people who first see the deck balk at the presence of three colors in a Burn deck, knowing that you too will be taking lots of damage, but when the risk comes at the reward of having a reliable turn 4/5 kill, it tends to not matter in 80-90% of the matchups.

I lost round 2 playing against one of these fair decks, B/G Rock.  It was embarrassing.  I misplayed, knew correctly how the situation worked, but just duffed it after thinking about my play for a long time in the tank.  I was in game 3 and had a Shard Volley in my hand along with an active Grim Lavamancer and a Goblin Guide in play.  My opponent was essentially in lethal range within the next turn, but had a Tarmogoyf on the table.  For some reason the notion got into my head that I needed to kill this Goyf since it was both preventing me from attacking and also would kill me in a few turns if I left it go unchecked.  I don’t know how my logic circled around to this, but I ended up Shard Volley’ing it, forgetting that the instant would make it grow a toughness bigger, and a nearby judge pointed it out after both my opponent and I missed it.  The Tarmogoyf lived, I no longer could get her for lethal in another turn, and I was killed by the same Goyf.  It’s almost never correct to kill a creature in the first place, which I know very well, but sometimes the pressure just gets to you.  Sadly, this is pretty costly in a big tournament like this, but I pushed on.

The later rounds were almost entirely a cruise, relying on knowing how the matchups work and being thankful for the practice time which was largely spent against any deck with Steam Vents in it (which is pretty much the format).  I lost one other round midway through the tournament to a player from my town who was on Scapeshift, and it was really just a matter of not drawing enough gas.  That matchup is almost always easy, as the outs they bring in are largely ones that you can play around (Spellskite) or counteract (Obstinate Baloth/Skullcrack).  The combo is a threat if you have a slower hand, which was the case here, but you rarely lose a game on the play and they almost never have enough disruption early to prevent you from going off first.  I lost the third game with my opponent at 1 life, and beat Scapeshift at least once if not twice during the remaining portion of the day.  Overall, I finished in 19th place and viewed the day as a good practice session going into Sunday.  A fellow grinder Greg Ogreenc (who in combination with Jasper Johnson-Epstein designed this Burn deck) made top 8 in Fond Du Lac, but sadly got paired against the worst matchup (Affinity) and lost a nailbiter in 3 games.  Thankfully one of our other Madison natives Matt Severa, playing Faeries, took down the tournament so not all was lost on the day.

I got home that night at 8:30pm and was exhausted.  I talked with my wife for a while and then tried to muster some sleep after looking at Magic articles online.  Next thing I know I woke up at 2 a.m., couldn’t fall back asleep, and then left my house at 3:30 a.m. to meet with my ride.  The drive took less time than we thought, but it was still 4 hours on top of what we did the day prior.  We arrived at Fantasy Flight Games Center near Minneapolis, and the next PTQ began.

Round 1 I had no idea what was going on.

My opponent was playing Steam Vents.deck (ah so familiar), but the card choices in game 1 weren’t enough for me to get a pin on what he had going.  I saw Snapcaster, Remand, Bolts, and all UR lands, so to me it seemed like he could either be a UR Control deck, a Delver deck, or Twin.  I thought that maybe he was playing the Twin combo in the board and when I went to game 2 I brought in 1 or 2 cards for that matchup just incase.  I didn’t want to overload on it if I was wrong, but I also didn’t want to be dead to it.  He was playing well throughout our match, but I was able to get game 2.  It was during that game that he scry’d with Magma Jet and accidentally revealed a Blood Moon.  The lightbulb turned on at that point and I realized I was playing against Blue Moon, a deck that I didn’t know much about other than seeing a decklist at the time of the Modern Pro Tour.  I had a sideboard plan for it (see my last article), and followed that for game 3.  It was very close, I was able to get him down to 1 life but had to pass the turn knowing that I was probably in danger with him having a few cards in hand and being at 8 life.  Sure enough, he cast Snapcaster at the end of my turn to flashback a Lightning Bolt, untapped, then cast another Lightning Bolt and an Electrolyze.  Not a good way to start out, but I wasn’t too jaded since the games were played very well on both sides and there was nothing I could do.  My opponent Lito was a very nice guy and I wished him good luck on his way up the chain.

I wouldn’t lose after that until much later.  Round after round, I either pummeled or squeaked out of intense situations, as this deck does.  It’s much like a Boxer in a fight, you need to time your hits correctly and sequence your moves.  It’s very easy to misplay this Burn deck.  You need to be doing the math on every turn you take and thinking of what possible outs your opponent has as you usually win with exactly lethal in a lot of games or with burn spells off the top of the deck.  Playing a few two mana burn spells because you have a few in your hand when you could have played three one mana burn spells and then finished with a two mana burn spell often can be the deciding factor between you being at the smelly tables in the back or up front with the champions.  There’s a lot of critical applications to keep in the back of your head too.

For instance, in one round Greg was playing against a Jund player and when the Jund player went to cast Anger of the Gods against a field of Goblin Guide, Grim Lavamancer, and Vexing Devil, and all looked lost.  But Greg cast Boros Charm giving his creatures indestructible and took the match.  It’s plays like these which don’t always seem obvious (since you’re usually totaling damage counts), but are extremely relevant to the long-gain results.  Another example came for me at the end of the day in Fond Du Lac when I looked dead on board against Pod, with him at 9 life and me facing lethal when I passed the turn.  I had a Lightning Bolt and a Rakdos Charm in hand, and he had an Archangel of Thune, a mana dork, a Voice of Resurgence, and an Elemental token from the Voice.  I passed the turn, declared I had upkeep effects, and then during his upkeep cast Lightning Bolt to trigger the Voice of Resurgence ability, then cast Rakdos Charm to trigger it again, and then chose the mode to deal each player 1 damage for each creature they control.  It was exactly lethal, and had I not seen the play I would have been X-3 and not X-2.

Going into the 8th and final round of the Minneapolis PTQ, I was in 9th place.  I was the last person with a 6-1 record, and as such I wouldn’t be able to draw in unless a lot of others played it out which wasn’t going to happen.  I sat down and talked with my opponent, and it turns out he was 5-1-1 and had been paired up, so it was going to come down to the winner of this match to determine which of us would make top 8 and try to battle for a plane ticket to Hawaii.  One of my car mates Keenan watched on as I fidgeted in my chair trying to collect myself and focus on the fact that this deck was good, I knew it well, and it was performing like it should all day.  I had the play in game 1 and picked up my starting hand to see this:

aridmesablackcleavecliffsriftboltriftboltriftboltlightningboltlightningbolt

Or really I should say this:

matchesnapalm

After suspending a Rift Bolt I passed to my opponent who played this on his turn 1:

slipperyboggle

What a fitting piece of artwork for how that made me feel.  One more win to go in, willing to face just about any matchup, and then BOGGLES.  I just had to hope I could race, as I was looking at arguably one of the best possible hands I could have with Burn, and he was going to need everything he had to stay in this game.  Bad matchup or not.

I drew into running bolts of various kinds, he was able to play a Daybreak Coronet and gain life, but then cracked a fetch to play another creature and went down to six.  “Untap, Bump, Shard Volley, Kill You.”

Game 2 I mulled to five.  Burned him for a while and attacked with Guides/Devil, but he was eventually able to assemble a Gladecover Scout with a Spirit Link and Daybreak Coronet, gain 8 life, and put himself well out of reach.  I think I was a turn or two away, but without a Skullcrack I couldn’t do anything to keep myself in the game.

MinneapolisMagic
(Photo Credit:  Dan Bock)

In game 3 I opened with Electrickery, a Goblin Guide, a burn spell, and some lands.  It wasn’t ideal, but Electrickery is one of the huge sideboard pieces against Boggles so I figured it was better than going down to 6 cards.  Electrickery ended up 2-for-1’ing him when he tried to Rancor up a Gladecover Scout, and Guide was getting in for some good damage along with some burn.  Things were looking good too as I had drawn a Volcanic Fallout.  My opponent was able to get out a Kor Spiritdancer, and when he attempted to suit it up I cast the Fallout to sweep our boards and do us each 2 damage.  The next turn he played another Spiritdancer, and it met with a Lightning Bolt when he tried to again suit it up.

Phew, deep breath.  I drew another burn spell or two.  I put him down to four life and passed the turn with no cards in hand.  On his turn he played a hexproof creature, put a Daybreak Coronet on it, and passed.  If I draw Boros Charm he is dead, and if I draw Skullcrack I can buy another turn and put him at 1 life.  I had not drawn one of either yet, and we had probably drawn about 20 cards or so by that point, so the odds were not great but more favorable then a lot of bad situations.  I drew. . .

aridmesa

My heart sank.  I wished him good luck in the top 8 and sat there stunned.  15 rounds of Magic over the course of two days, one win away from making top 8 against what would ultimately be a very favorable field for Burn.  It was a great experience though, I was able to play against the vast majority of the archetypes in existence and now have a pretty good grip on how the matchups go for the future.  I had a fun time with friends, especially my car mates who were cracking me up all weekend with jokes, and it meant a lot to me to improve as a player.  In Minneapolis I also beat Jasper heads up in the later rounds, so while I was sad to see a friend have to get knocked out of contention, I was glad to get past one of the better players in this game at least for one tournament.  After the Swiss we stayed until the end of the top 8 and watched as Greg took down the whole thing.  He even got revenge on the Boggles opponent in the Quarterfinals, and beat Jund for the crown.  Another pro who many of you might recognize from StarCityGames, Matthias Hunt, also played our list and finished in 10th.  The PTQ that we didn’t attend on Saturday in Iowa was won by Burn as well.  Overall, it was a strong weekend for the archetype and proof that Mountains really can win.

Present

Here are the decks that I would play at the current moment in each format.  They don’t win too many points on originality, but they give you a good chance to win:

Standard:

Rabble Red:

Maindeck
3 Ash Zealot
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Firedrinker Satyr
2 Firefist Striker
4 Foundry-Street Denizen
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
3 Legion Loyalist
4 Rakdos Cackler
3 Rubblebelt Maaka

3 Lightning Strike
4 Stoke the Flames

1 Hall of Triumph

18 Mountain
3 Mutavault

Sideboard
1 Hall of Triumph
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Magma Spray
1 Harness by Force
1 Searing Blood
1 Mizzium Mortars
1 Electrickery
2 Skullcrack
1 Seismic Stomp

Modern:

RWB Burn:

Maindeck
4 Goblin Guide
4 Vexing Devil
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Grim Lavamancer

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Bump in the Night
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
1 Shard Volley
4 Boros Charm
2 Skullcrack
2 Searing Blaze

1 Marsh Flats
4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Blood Crypt
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
2 Snow-Covered Mountain

Sideboard
2 Rakdos Charm
2 Skullcrack
2 Searing Blaze
2 Combust
1 Smash to Smithereens
1 Volcanic Fallout
1 Spellskite
1 Shattering Spree
1 Sudden Shock
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Electrickery

Legacy:

Burn:

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

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

2 Sulfuric Vortex

4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
2 Wooded Foothills
10 Mountain

Sideboard
3 Ensnaring Bridge
3 Flame Rift
2 Vexing Shusher
2 Smash to Smithereens
2 Mindbreak Trap
1 Searing Blaze
1 Searing Blood
1 Sulfuric Vortex

Pauper:

Goblins:

Maindeck
4 Goblin Arsonist
4 Goblin Sledder
4 Mogg Conscripts
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Goblin Cohort
4 Mogg Raider
4 Mogg War Marshall
3 Sparksmith
3 Goblin Matron

4 Lightning Bolt
2 Death Spark
2 Goblin Grenade

17 Mountain
1 Teetering Peaks

Sideboard
4 Pyroblast
2 Goblin Fireslinger
2 Electrickery
2 Flaring Pain
2 Gorilla Shaman
1 Sylvok Lifestaff
1 Sparksmith
1 Death Spark

I think everyone at this point who’s been playing Red decks can tell you that it’s all about the all-mighty Eidolon of the Great Revel.  That card has put in so much work in the past few months.  It can be a liability in aggro/burn mirrors when you’re on the draw, but otherwise it’s one of the most influential cards in every matchup.  It also gives you free “game” against combo decks that you otherwise would have had nothing against in game 1s.  You’ll notice I listed Rabble Red for my preferred Standard deck at the moment, and it’s not to slight RW Burn at all.  I think RW Burn is well positioned, but it requires even more intense piloting then the Modern and Legacy versions, and it can be durdly at times or hugely dependent on card choice.  It’s very much like a UW Control deck in the sense that you have to tailor it properly for the always evolving metagame, where as Rabble Red just has a straight forward game plan and presents a difficult clock for many of the decks in Standard.  The sideboard is versatile and covers most of the tougher matchups with some good singletons to reinforce the already good ones.  You can play around Drown in Sorrow and Supreme Verdict and if done properly it’s quite difficult for your opponent to have the right answers.

Future

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast announced that Magic will be moving to a two set system, with the usual process being a big set followed by a small, rotations after each block, no Core set, and ultimately three blocks in Standard.  The article is an interesting read, and if you haven’t seen it yet I recommend taking a look HERE.  There’s a lot of wild speculation that I’ve seen over what this will mean for card prices, and to tell you the truth I’m not sure what will be the outcome until we actually see it firsthand.  My guess is that card prices will simply be more volatile, but it could largely be about the same.  It’s a good move for the game otherwise, and will help to keep Standard fresh for years to come.  I’m surprised this is coming so quickly on the heels of the new PTQ structure announcement, but change for Wizards is long overdue, so maybe someone up there is finally starting to “get it”.

Khans of Tarkir doesn’t have much spoiled yet, but all the buzz and the few cards shown so far look exciting.  It seems to feature Red quite prominently, and the new Raid mechanic is just what the doctor ordered.  Being able to punish your opponent with the element of surprise damage is the push over the top that decks want in this color, we just need to see how many cards end up being playable.  For those that haven’t seen any of the cards yet (SPOILER), this is one of the ones released (note* not playable)

marduheartpiercer

I’m really hoping that Goblins gets a bump, since we already received the awesome Rabblemaster in M15 and Goblin Bombardment is about to be reprinted.  A legit two mana Goblin specifically would be nice, or a Lord or two.  As some of you know from my articles I was testing a Goblin build just before M15’s release, and while I never put the polishing touches on it I believe it was just a good card or two away from being viable.  Maybe we’ll even get Siege-Gang Commander. . .

While this isn’t future news, there’s another deck in Modern that popped up late in the season that looks like an absolute blast to play.  It did well at a Modern IQ in Dallas back in March, and then was taken to a top 8 berth by Judge Sewall in a recent Nebraska PTQ.  Behold the greatness:

RW Stax

Maindeck
2 Magus of the Moon
4 Simian Spirit Guide

2 Wrath of God
3 Anger of the Gods
3 Lightning Helix
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Ensnaring Bridge
2 Damping Matrix
4 Blood Moon
2 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Ghostly Prison
1 Assemble the Legion
2 Ajani Vengeant
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Gideon Jura
1 Elspeth, Knight Errant

7 Plains
2 Mountains
2 Clifftop Retreat
4 Sacred foundry
4 Arid Mesa
4 Temple of Triumph

Sideboard
3 Defense Grid
2 Wear/Tear
2 Wurmcoil engine
2 Rest in Peace
2 Stony Silence
2 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Nevermore
1 Baneslayer Angel

The pilot of the deck lost to R/G Tron in the Quarters, but this is a matchup that could be shored up by a large number of card choices available.  Tron isn’t even very popular in recent months, and supposedly this deck absolutely crushes Pod which is a place I’d rather be.

Conclusion

I’m going to be on break from big tournaments for a while, probably until at least late October.  Thank you again for continuing to read my site and all the support, I will try to keep up the battling and hopefully bring you a “Pro Tour Report” sometime soon.  Until then,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

Battling to Qualify: A Modern Experience

volcanicfalloutwallpaper

Battling to Qualify:  A Modern Experience

The struggle to reach the professional tour in this game is real.  It’s a tale that’s told by the look on a face, the projection of a tone, the desperate travel plans made at the 9th hour, and the perceived desire in ones words.  This Sunday I went to a Pro Tour Qualifier in Chicago, and this time it felt different.  They always stir up familiar emotions and passions, but this particular one covered a lifetime of experiences in one very long day.  The good, the bad, the ugly; they were all there.

A few weeks ago I was talking with local grinder Louis Kaplan, and we were comparing our endless string of “almost” getting there tournaments.  And by “there” I mean that coveted blue envelope that means more than the world to many competitive Magic players.  Making the Pro Tour has been one of my biggest dreams since I was young, and while time is against me, the fire burns as bright as ever right now to try and fulfill that dream.

Last Monday I was browsing Facebook, when I noticed a notification pop up.  I clicked on it to read “Alan Hochman with Pastimes Games is hosting a $5,000 Prize PTQ in Chicago”.  I haven’t seen PTQs mixed with cash payouts before, although other players were quickly informing me that these things have been around for a while.  Regardless, this was a very reasonable reward for your time and effort if for some reason you don’t get to make a dream come true.  I shared the post with my town’s MTG group, and discussion started on who all was going.  There were a few of the regular grinders who already had it planned, along with hitting either Minneapolis or St. Louis the day before for a double-PTQ special.  Sadly all the cars were full, and most of my usual crew were in complete boycott of Pastimes after their experiences at the recent Grand Prix.

I looked in my wallet.  Heck, not even a ball of lint.  Credit Cards stretched to the brim as usual, savings tapped, bills to pay.  Brakes on the car squealing.  Just finished the tail end of a two-week long move across apartments.  Work crazy as usual.  My playtesting of Nicholas Heal’s GP Minneapolis Red Deck Wins build had been going poorly.  I’m thirty years old, and probably starting a family in the next few years, and the last thing my wife needs is another weekend where I’m running away to play a game that I’ve played since I was ten.

Those are a few of the million reasons I had not to go.  But the dream. . .

I hopped on Cockatrice.  It’s not the greatest testing tool, but it lets you put yourself through the paces of a deck easy enough and you can scour for good opponents if you’re patient.  I eventually settled into playing a few games with a guy and we started having some conversation in chat.  He was from Finland, and he was looking to play in his country’s WMCQ soon.  He was worried he wasn’t going to have enough Planeswalker Points because there was only one other big tournament in his area and it was two weeks before the WMCQ.  It was 100 miles away and there literally weren’t any other major tournaments over the course of an entire year except for these two.  This made me pull up my DCI number online to compare some things, and I clicked over on the history tab to relive some nostalgia.  My first big tournament listed was a PTQ from January, 1999.  Fifteen years ago.  My god.  FIFTEEN YEARS!  It just seemed so unreal even though I remember the days.  But more importantly, it reminded me, this isn’t “just a game”, this is a dream.  I know I’m coming across super serious in this article, but this look back hammered it home for me.  There’s no point to let all this time, effort, and passion go to waste, you have to keep battling to get what you want.  And here I’ve been given the opportunity to play in multiple high level events every single weekend.  Of course like anyone with an actual social life outside of Magic I can’t do that, but it still gives me no excuse to let chances slip through my fingers if I can make something happen.

I messaged my good friend Travis to see if he had some fetches I could borrow.  He did.  I got ahold of a few judge friends in my area who were going to be involved in the event and was able to secure a ride for Sunday.  At this point there was no turning back.  Now I just had to find a list to work with.  If you remember from my last Modern article, there were choices and I wasn’t certain what direction to go (surprise).  Every time I have to figure out my list these days, this is what I feel like:

heartattack

I thought, if anything, I kind of like what the local pros who I really respect have played or listed recently, so probably best to crowdsource them and see what feels best to me.  I messaged Jasper Johnson-Epstein and Adrian Sullivan to see where their updated Burn lists were at.  Adrian messaged me back briefly but didn’t sound terribly confident about the deck.  Jasper messaged me back an updated build and sideboard plan, and things looked good so I began to assemble the cards.  I tested online a bunch over the course of a day or two, and then at 11pm after a long afternoon of drinking with friends I got a little Facebook ding from Adrian right as I was about to hit the hay.  The gist of it was, I should play his GR Burn list because it was better positioned, had Ghor Clan, and while he still thought Burn wasn’t a good choice at the moment, it was the better list.  I respect the hell out of both of these guys after watching them ascend to greatness many times, and because they’re both excellent Red mages.  My brain was racked, so I wasn’t sure what to do and went to sleep.

My alarm went off at 5 A.M., although since it was the night before a PTQ I was already up at 4 A.M. with the hamster wheel spinning thinking about what to play.  I met up at a parking lot to catch my ride down to Chicago, and when we got to the tournament site after our two hour drive, I started working to put together Adrian’s list.  I still liked Jasper’s, and had it sleeved, but Adrian was really trying hard to convince me otherwise the night before.  Something felt unpolished about it though, and ultimately Jasper found me, sat by my table, and detailed out all the reasons why playing more creatures and Ghor Clan in this “style” of a deck was not the place I wanted to be at the moment.  Modern is currently a removal heavy format, and you just want to play along that all familiar Burn axis that they can’t defend against.  I had more experience with Jasper’s list anyway, so I crossed out the differences on my registration sheet and re-sleeved his deck.  Yes, the schizophrenia was in full fever friends.  Thankfully, I think I made the right choice (at least for that day), and I was happy playing it throughout.  Here is the list that I played:

R/W/B Burn, 56th Place, John Galli, deck design by Jasper Johnson-Epstein

Maindeck

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

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Bump in the Night
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
1 Shard Volley
4 Boros Charm
2 Skullcrack
2 Searing Blaze

1 Marsh Flats
4 Arid Mesa
4 Scalding Tarn
1 Blood Crypt
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
2 Mountain

Sideboard
2 Rakdos Charm
2 Skullcrack
2 Searing Blaze
2 Combust
2 Volcanic Fallout
1 Spellskite
1 Stony Silence
1 Sudden Shock
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Electrickery

Sideboard Guide from Jasper (rough, from his older list so ignore cards that aren’t in the current build but I adapted it as I played):

It’s fine to cut a Mountain on the draw much of the time, but not great when bringing in three-mana spells and/or Searing Blazes.

Zoo: +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Flamebreak, -4 Goblin Guide
Affinity: +1 Electrickery, +2 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Stony Silence, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil, -2 Boros Charm
UR Twin: +1 Spellskite, +2 Combust, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Skullcrack, -2 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Rift Bolt, -1 Rift Bolt (play)/-1 Mountain (draw)
URg Twin : +1 Spellskite, +2 Combust, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil
URw Twin: +1 Spellskite, +2 Combust, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Volcanic Fallout, +1 Sudden Shock, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil
UWR: +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, [+1 Flamebreak if they show Geist], -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Vexing Devil, -1 Vexing Devil (play)/-1 Mountain (draw), [-1 Vexing Devil if they show Geist] Combust isn’t usually good here, but some builds have Baneslayers and Restos along with the Colonnades, so season to taste.
Storm: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +1 Rakdos Charm, +1 Rakdos Charm (draw), -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Mountain (draw) Skullcrack isn’t great, and Fallout has some real utility if they show Empty the Warrens.
Jund: +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, -4 Vexing Devil
Blue Moon: +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, +1 Rakdos Charm (draw), -2 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Mountain (draw)
Infect: +1 Spellskite, +1 Electrickery, +2 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -2 Lightning Helix, -3 Skullcrack, -2 Boros Charm, -2 Rift Bolt
Melira Pod: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +2 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil, -1 Lightning Helix (Electrickery?)
Kiki Pod: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +1 Rakdos Charm, +2 Searing Blaze, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Vexing Devil
Bogles: +1 Spellskite, +1 Electrickery, +1 Skullcrack, +1 Flamebreak, +2 Volcanic Fallout, -2 Vexing Devil, -2 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze
Goryo’s Vengeance: +1 Grafdigger’s Cage, +2 Rakdos Charm, +1 Skullcrack, -1 Lightning Helix, -2 Searing Blaze, -1 Lightning Helix (play)/-1 Mountain (draw)
Scapeshift: (my own notes since Jasper didn’t have them in by accident) +1 Sudden Shock, +2 Skullcrack, -2 Searing Blaze, – 1 Mountain (draw)

The Tournament:

The tournament site was an old standby that I had been to several times, the Odeum in Villa Park, IL.  Let’s just say this thing was not built for a Magic tournament, yet because the greater Chicago area is apparently “limited” with regards to affordable venues, it’s used over and over again by Pastimes.  I went to a Regionals there in the early 2000s, and Magic players were playing Soccer on an indoor Soccer field.  Only, this was the same indoor Soccer field that the Regionals event was also being played on.  Yeah. . . . .

It was hot in the main event room at this current PTQ.  So much so that I was literally sweating through my shirt and having trouble concentrating for a while.  Granted, I’m on the heavier side, although certainly no Boggart Ram-Gang.  But the dream. . .

Round 1 vs B/G Rock

This matchup seems to favor the Burn side, but it’s a tough deck and can go either way depending on draws.  I was playing against Greg who is a reasonable player from the Chicago area, and the games were very close.  The main thing here is that you’re faster than them, and you want to dump your initial hand as fast as you possibly can so that you can avoid them getting any value out of their Liliana once it comes down.  Scavenging Ooze and Discard are your worst enemies, followed by Obstinate Baloth and Batterskull out of the sideboard.  Thus, Skullcrack is very live, as is Sudden Shock since it kills Ooze at times before it can get out of control.  Sometimes you run out of gas, but if you don’t, they usually can’t keep up.  Vexing Devil is pretty awful here other than providing tempo, so following the Jund sideboard plan worked well for me.  Fortunately I had been casually testing this matchup with some friends before the tournament started so this was the perfect deck to line up against in Round 1.

(Win) 1-0

Round 2 vs Affinity

The Affinity matchup is absolutely nuts.  Both decks are balls to the wall and are trying to out maneuver each other.  Burn in this format definitely can’t afford to kill many creatures, so the more Searing Blaze “effects” you have, the better.  Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, and Vault Skirge are all major thorns in your side.  In game 1 of this match, my opponent got two Signal Pests, a Memnite, and a Vault Skirge down within the first turn or two, and I was soon backpedaling trying to deal with the Skirge before the life imbalance cleaned my clock.  Sadly killing creatures runs you out of gas and his army just kept piling on until I was very dead.  Be willing to take a lot of damage in this matchup and stay dedicated to burning them.  You only care about a few creatures, and if they have Etched Champion you’re probably in trouble.

Game 2 you get to bring in almost your entire sideboard, so that helps slow them down quite a bit.  Stony Silence shuts off all the modular madness and Cranial Plating, your sweepers gain you critical value, and you have a lot of redundancy to try and make sure your removal sticks.  Beware though, they often bring in Welding Jar or Spellskite, so you may need to save removal for these if you have enough to go around.  In fact, game 2 of this match came down to just that, as I was piling on the burn to the point where my opponent was very low, only to watch him double galvanic blast me, play a Spellskite which I was forced to respond to with a Shard Volley, and then cry as I couldn’t draw a second land again to play my lethal Skullcrack in hand over the course of the next three turns.  Also, be sure to be extremely careful with how you play out the lands in your hand; both the damage from your Shocks/Fetches and the ability to cast Searing Blazes on time are incredibly relevant.

(Loss) 1-1

Round 3 vs Burn

The burn mirror isn’t pleasant with this build because there’s really not a good sideboard plan for it and you have a lot more ways to damage yourself then they do (assuming they’re more Mono Red or strictly RW).  You have to play your lands tapped as often as possible, trust your knowledge of the archetype, and put strength in the fact that you have higher impact / a greater redundancy of  burn spells than they do.  The Burn mirror could have its own detailed article all by itself, but in this round it really came down to who was on the play.

There were a few mistakes my opponent made too, but in game 1 I won with him having lethal in hand, game 2 he did the same back to me, and game 3 I switched it up again.  I experimented a lot more than I should have with my sideboard in this match, going so far as to bring in Spellskite to neuter all of his 3/4 damage burn.  I don’t like that it’s an unaggressive card here, but the tech worked out in the game that I played it since he otherwise would have been able to kill me were I not able to reduce a lot of damage.  Eidolon is something you have to be very careful with, but it’s an absolute monster when you’re on the play or if your opponent stumbles.  It can also be a liability when you’re behind, so I’d like to hear thoughts on how others play it to get a gauge for different strategies.  Personally I feel very comfortable playing him as I’ve been jamming it in Standard for a long time now, but I see many mages backing themself into a corner.

(Win) 2-1

Round 4 vs Tron

This matchup honestly feels like it is a bye to me.  They have scary scary cards that they can play, and turn 3 Tron is absolutely a thing, but if you have a half decent hand they don’t really have much of an answer.  Wurmcoil Engine is the end game, so get your Skullcracks ready.  I won this match very quickly with little trouble at all.  Just be aggressive and know what cards are important and when they’re going for them.

It isn’t always pretty though.  I went over to watch Jasper playing against Gifts/Tron the following round, and as I come over I see chaos unfold.  In game 2 Jasper’s opponent tries to cast a Sphinx’s Revelation which gets Skullcrack’d, he then tries to Unburial Rites an Elesh Norn into play but has his graveyard exiled by Rakdos Charm, and then his opponent follows up with a Wurmcoil Engine which then leads to Jasper top-decking a Lava Spike to kill him before the Engine has a chance to attack.  Game 3 is even crazier as I see a Karn sitting on 11 counters, followed by an Oblivion Stone blowing up the world, leaving Jasper with 1 land in play and nothing else.  Jasper then proceeds to Bump in the Night his opponent twice and that was all she wrote.

(Win) 3-1

Round 5 vs Faeries

Ah, the Fae.  Any Red mage playing during Lorwyn/Shadowmoor will remember this awful menace of a deck, and its only become stronger in Modern.  Now they have access to Pack Rat, along with better counter-magic and removal.  In fact, another fellow Madison native Matt Severa made top 8 with it, and a different pilot that I don’t know was in the finals as I was leaving.  It’s the ultimate tempo deck, but fortunately for you it plays Bitterblossom which is just the absolute worst against Burn, and you have a suite of sideboard cards that are uncounterable.  These games were the most intense ones of the tournament for me, but it was a lot of fun.

Both of you are largely playing at instant speed, and Grim Lavamancer + Eidolon of the Great Revel are beasts if left unchecked.  Your spells are cheaper and have a higher impact, but they have a lot of cheap counter magic that can potentially run you out of gas.  My biggest advice here would be to make sure you sandbag your uncounterables until the very last minute, and stretch each card as far as it will go.  Your creatures are excellent diversions here, as all of them are either must kill or act as removal spells vs many of their creatures.  Also worthy of note; do not bring in Combust unless you see some insanely specific reason for it.  You want all damage cards here if possible to keep up with the pace.  The only creature Combust kills that you even lightly care about is Mistbind Clique (or the Faerie it’s championing to be correct), and if that card is coming down most of your other burn spells can respond to it, or you simply don’t care at that point in the game.  Rakdos Charm can be important too if they have access to Swords, Batterskull, or just as a finisher.

(Win) 4-1

Round 6 vs UR Twin

I found Twin to be a difficult matchup, although Jasper is confident that it is not.  As you can see from the sideboard notes, there are intricacies depending on the versions.  The hardest part about playing against any deck like this, is if you play cautiously in anticipation of the “combo”, they can just attrition you out through native means.  Game 1 I had no idea what was going on, I thought he was on UR Aggro which is seen a lot on MTGO (Delver, Pyromancer, Lavamancer), only to have him combo kill me six turns in.  Game 2 we sparred blows and I was holding Rakdos Charm for his combo, but an early Spellskite was preventing my creatures from getting through.  I held onto Charm too long (although he did have the combo in hand), and the game slipped away from me when it may have gone the other direction if I had immediately gone after Spellskite and then tried for the win the next turn.  This was also a match where I kept a sketch one lander in game 1, and it did not pan out well.  At least I didn’t feel too bad when my opponent went on to top 8, and we later had a discussion about how he too was a big grinder without a blue envelope.

(Loss) 4-2

Round 7 vs Scapeshift

They are a slower combo deck than you, and you have disruption for most of their stall tactics (Spellskite, Obstinate Baloth, Nature’s Claim, etc).  Skullcrack for their lifegain and Sudden Shock for Sakura Tribe-Elder are the keys, along with having any kind of half-decent hand.  Game 2 was pretty hilarious, I had quadruple Eidolon of the Great Revel and had to Lightning Bolt him in response to me casting the third one because I almost forgot that I would have been dead to my own Bolt otherwise.  Fortunately I caught it in time, and then he died to his unsuspending Search for Tomorrow during his upkeep before he could cast a second Obstinate Baloth.

(Win) 5-2

At this point it looked fairly clear that I would miss top 8, but top 16 was a reality.  Cash payout to 32nd.

Round 8 vs RUG Twin

A chance at revenge.  The RUG version seems a little more durdely, and for the most part I liked that he was focused on a beatdown plan moreso than the combo.  Games 1 and 2 were close, of which we split when the other person had the kill the next turn.  To be fair, in game 1 I was again stuck on another 1 land sketch keep, so that should play up the strength of Burn even more considering the battles these games were.  Game 3 I was cruising along just fine looking like things were going to be wrapped up shortly when all of a sudden a Huntmaster of the Fells hit the table.  I didn’t have ways to interact with it immediately, and as a result he unloaded a flipping fiesta of lifegain and wolves until I was buried to death by an army.  It was a new card addition that he had made between the PTQ he had attended the day before and this one.  Looks like the change paid off.

Make sure to note the sideboard differences on this one vs UR Twin.  You play more creature removal here, mostly to keep tempo, but also for corner cases like this.  I followed the board plan correctly, unfortunately I just couldn’t draw what was needed in time.

(Loss) 5-3

Round 9 vs Affinity

My opponent was really hyper this round and it was throwing me on tilt.  He had the energy of a five year old boy and was trying to make cheesy jokes from the minute we sat down.  He introduced himself as Dac Fayden and kept trying to get me to acknowledge it.  I on the other hand was incredibly drained from the day and just focusing on trying to make a little cash.  I like socializing before and during matches, but I just wasn’t prepared for his over the top excitement.  We went to three games, with a lot of similar interaction to the previous Affinity match, but ultimately he nickel and dimed me to death with Blinkmoth Nexus and tried to ask me to pick a color for his Mox Opal when I was dead on board.  Sigh.  I definitely could have had a better attitude for this match, but it just felt like the entire tournament was falling apart during it.  The grind is real. . .

(Loss) 5-4.  My opponent finished in 32nd.  I congratulated him on the cash and went to do what I do best; play Purphoros in EDH.

Switching back to a positive note, a reader and casual acquaintance from previous tournaments hung out with me over the course of the day and played a really sweet Mono Red deck to a strong finish.  The list should whet the appetite of even the least dedicated of Red mages, this thing is just pure beauty:

Koths and Bolts by Davis Merced, 11th Place at PTQ Chicago

Maindeck

4 Boros Reckoner
4 Simian Spirit Guide
1 Magus of the Moon
3 Thundermaw Hellkite

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Skred
1 Red Sun’s Zenith
2 Pyroclasm
2 Volcanic Fallout

4 Koth of the Hammer

3 Relic of Progenitus
4 Blood Moon
1 Batterskull

21 Snow Covered Mountains
2 Scrying Sheets

Sideboard
4 Combust
2 Eidolon of the Great Revel
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Dismember
2 Shatterstorm
1 Vandalblast
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Chandra Pyromaster

He had an article feature at Grand Prix Richmond for a strong finish with the previous iteration of the deck, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in playing the archetype.  There are some weaknesses vs non-interactive decks, but otherwise this list is impressive.  Davis is a cool cat, a die hard Red Mage, and a fellow Bulls fan to boot, so I couldn’t recommend his stuff any more here.  Dropping a turn 1 Blood Moon on someone is for sure a place I’d like to be in Modern.  And if you don’t like Koth, I don’t think I can fix your problems.

The writeup can be found HERE

I know this article was a long one, but I’m sure a lot of it will resonate with my fellow grinders.  And for all of you aspiring to become better Magic players and better Red players, please keep up the fight.  Don’t give in to all the people telling you that you can’t win unless you play other decks.  Practice, practice, and practice some more.  That’s my biggest weakness despite how much time I do put into the game, but thankfully it’s always something that can be worked on.  And while you should play other decks to gain useful knowledge from the process, when it comes to tournament time I always believe you have a better chance, well as Davis put it in the writeup, when you “play what you know”.

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning