Devotion To Skred

skredwallpaper

Devotion To Skred

We’re in the thick of Modern season, a place that breeds creativity and rewards those who dare to explore the boundaries of an infant format.  With only a few of these seasons under its belt and a wide open card pool, I thought it was pertinent to explore some possibilities.  Those of you who have been PPTQ’ing like me, attended Grand Prix Charlotte, or simply like new things should be pretty happy with what we’ve seen in the last few weeks.  Very different top 8s, new decks breathing life into the format, and old standbys remaining contenders but not being overpowered.

But if you’re really like me, you want to be winning with Red.  And today, more specifically, SKRED.

skred

Fellow podcaster Davis Merced played Skred Red at Grand Prix Richmond last year to a Day 2 finish, taking advantage of a format that was vulnerable to Blood Moon and focused synergy.  The deck is extremely fun to look at, play games with, and was even dubbed the affectionate nickname of “Koths and Bolts”.  For those of you who haven’t seen it in my articles before, this was his list:

Skred Red by Davis Merced (Day 2, Grand Prix Richmond 2014)

2 Scrying Sheets
21 Snow-Covered Mountain

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

1 Batterskull
4 Blood Moon
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Mind Stone
2 Pyroclasm
3 Relic of Progenitus
4 Skred
2 Volcanic Fallout

4 Koth of the Hammer

Sideboard
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Blasphemous Act
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
4 Combust
2 Molten Rain
1 Pyrite Spellbomb
1 Relic of Progenitus
3 Shatterstorm

I’ve been revisiting this deck since the results of the SCG Invitational clearly begged for the return of Blood Moon.  Amulet Bloom Combo and RG Tron were everywhere on Day 2, and while the results leveled out at Grand Prix Charlotte, many decks in the format can still be punished by elements of Skred Red.  Blood Moon lets you do many things due to the time it establishes while your opponent tries to find answers.

Davis’s build skews more towards a Control angle.  There are powerful finishers, along with the Boros Reckoner / Skred Combo, and this is backed up by sweepers.  I like that approach, but generally I tend to play more aggressive decks and I noticed there are games that you sometimes need more threat power.  Either you have a Blood Moon out and no threats for a long time, or you don’t have a Blood Moon and you’re hoping your sweepers buy you enough time.  These situations only come up in a fraction of games, as the deck is largely consistent, but the hamster wheel got turning when Davis was telling me about losing twice to Scapeshift in a PTQ where he went 6-2.  I thought, why limit ourselves to Control when we can pretty much do whatever we want, and just have Blood Moon run interference.

The first idea that came to mind was a combo from old Standard that was great at dismantling Aggro and Midrange decks, while at the same time putting your opponent on a clock:

cunningsparkmagebasiliskcollar

The ability to kill any creature, and two cards that are reasonable just by themselves.  There are a lot of useful X/1s in Modern, and Sparkmage puts the kibosh on those.  Noble Hierarch, Elves (seeing increased popularity), Affinity’s creatures, Viscera Seer, Infect’s creatures, etc.  I had tested Burn against a local friend and newly donned pro Fanchen Yang who has been playing Elves for quite some time, and Anger of the Gods / Volcanic Fallout was something that could be recovered from in many games.  Those cards still might be the best way to attack Aggro decks, but they’re not great against the Midrange part of the field and not nearly as fun as the combo above.

I talked about the new brew on Facebook and in my other podcast (Card Knock Life) this week and received some interesting ideas.  First was to replace or supplement Cunning Sparkmage with Vulshok Sorcerer, who was just a straight upgrade in the deck.  I had been looking through the gatherer quite a bit, but sometimes you just forget/miss some possibilities and it was early in the brewing stage.

This was my initial starting list (after subbing out Sparkmage):

Skred Aggro by John Galli (Early Test Build)

4 Spikeshot Elder
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
4 Stigma Lasher
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Vulshok Sorcerer
4 Simian Spirit Guide
2 Spellskite

4 Skred
4 Blood Moon
3 Basilisk Collar
2 Sword of War and Peace

21 Snow-Covered Mountain

Sideboard
2 Shattering Spree
1 Shatterstorm
1 Electrickery
2 Ghost Quarter
1 Spellskite
1 Rending Volley
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Roast
1 Basilisk Collar
1 Dragon’s Claw
1 Pyrite Spellbomb

There’s so many choices available for a deck like this, that I’ll warn readers this is simply a rough draft.  I jammed a good number of games on Cockatrice and really liked what was going on though, so it’s something I’m still continuing to test.  Cards that were on my flex list from the get-go and running forward were Spikeshot Elder, Stigma Lasher, Spellskite, and Sword of War and Peace.  None of these are necessary for the deck’s theme, they’re just good cards that I wanted to get a feel for.

Mogg Fanatic, Grim Lavamancer, and a variety of other cards that work with Basilisk Collar or Skred were on my radar.  I’ve subbed some of these in since the original list to see how the deck does with different orientations.  On the Card Knock Life Podcast, Corey suggested Fanatic of Mogis for a Devotion route since the deck already features a lot of Red mana symbols, along with Ash Zealot as some extra game against Snapcaster Mage and to give the deck added aggression.  I was a bit hesitant on the podcast in my response, but I did toss a few games in with it to see what it felt like.  It actually seems really strong, and opens another avenue you could take the deck towards.  Red Devotion was a very powerful deck in all its iterations for Standard, and when you combine this with Blood Moon along with the potential for faster deployment, you could end up with something great.

Speaking of faster deployment, a strong point of contention is this card:

simianspiritguide

I love this card.  It feels “broken” and while it is always a cause for card disadvantage, the flipside is that you get to cast absurdly powerful things absurdly early.  Its seen light play in both Modern and Legacy, and with good reason.  Just a few of the things I’ve done in the recent past with it:

– Played a turn 1 Stone Rain

– Played a turn 1 Blood Moon

– Played a turn 1 Eidolon of the Great Revel

– Paid for my opponent’s Daze while tapped out

– Played a turn 2 Koth of the Hammer

Consistency is the issue, as it takes a card away from your hand, it doesn’t permanently accelerate you, and there’s only a limited number of them in your deck.  It’s also not fantastic by itself, although it is nice that you can still get a 2/2 sometimes if that’s what the situation calls for.  I don’t know if a Devotion build has room for something like this, probably just as a 1-2 of if any at all, but the other builds of Skred really love to get their tech online fast.  And any deck with Eidolon or Blood Moon gets a serious leg up with his inclusion.

Burning-Tree Emissary is the more natural Devotion enabler, but one of the drawbacks he always had was that he couldn’t accelerate into the RR creatures and spells.  In Modern, the RR creatures are your basic bread and butter, so it’d be hard to cut some of them although there are a laundry list of 1R creatures to look through as other possible options.  Playing him also puts you pretty full tilt into Devotion, and I’m again not sure that the full-on Fanatic of Mogis plan is warranted.

Davis mentioned he has tried it in the past in Skred, and that he felt at the time there was too much removal in the format.  Personally I think there could be some room at the moment.  Aside from Jund, removal is fairly limited and pinpoint for most decks.  You’ll have your set of Lightning Bolt, your occasional Path to Exile or sweeper, but these are things that don’t generally nuke your whole deck and can be played cautiously into.  The advantage we have is that the opponent has a known archetype, and we very much do not.  You’re also going to play most of these cards anyway if you’re playing an Aggroish Skred, so a few Fanatics is just a solid curve topper that can accelerate your win by a turn or two.  It also gives you some long game and is difficult to deal with.

I’d like to share a decklist, but I also don’t like posting hot garbage when I can avoid it and the Devotion build is just not tailored enough yet for consumption.  That said, I have hope, and will continue to post on Twitter and Facebook as developments come along so stay tuned for that.

Another route you could go with Skred that carries the Aggro theme forward is Goblins.  I was playing Burn at a PPTQ a few weekends ago and felt very confident in my list.  I sat down against my round 1 opponent who had just graduated high school and he seemed like a fairly nice, casual guy.  Hopes were high, but then the next thing I know he cast Browbeat and I’m forced to let him draw three cards.  He follows it up the next turn by attacking me with a Goblin Guide, Goblin Grenade’ing it, and launches two Lightning Bolts at my face when I’m at 12 life and have lethal in hand.  Ouch.  Game 2 wasn’t any better, he curves Goblin Guide into Goblin Chieftain into Krenko, Mob Boss.

This got the wheels spinning again.  I started looking through results online, and ultimately found a few Goblin lists that placed in the top 8 of various States tournaments.  While I was at it I came across a great number of sweet decks.  I compiled a large list, and definitely recommend giving it a look if you’re a fan of originality:

Interesting Modern Brews

The Goblin lists in particular could fit the Skred shell because some of them already run Blood Moon to attack the meta and take advantage of their landbase.  I spoke with some players online who have been playing Goblins, and they were completely in on the Blood Moon plan already, saying they had been doing very well at their LGS’s tournaments.  While Goblins requires few non-creature spells and would like to have some number of Cavern of Souls, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to have Skred and Snow-Covered Mountains here too.  The only serious drawback is that one of the main reasons to run that combination is so you can use Boros Reckoner for loads of damage, but there still might be a way to squeeze these elements into a workable shell.  It’s also possible that I’m stretching too much, but there are great minds out there and I think it’s worth a mention to see if someone can crack it before I do.  In the time being I’ll be focusing more on Devotion and Aggro, but who knows what the future holds. . .

Other Red Decks In Modern

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what I’ve been playing in actual tournaments and another deck I think could be a stealth bomber.  First, the deck I’ve PPTQ’d with which you may have seen a version of on Anthony Lowry’s last StarCityGames article:

RBG Burn by John Galli

4 Goblin Guide
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
3 Tasigur, the Golden Fang

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Bump in the Night
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
1 Shard Volley
4 Searing Blaze
4 Atarka’s Command

1 Arid Mesa
1 Scalding Tarn
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire
2 Mountain
2 Stomping Ground
2 Blood Crypt
2 Blackcleave Cliffs
2 Copperline Gorge

Sideboard
4 Destructive Revelry
1 Rakdos Charm
1 Electrickery
2 Rending Volley
4 Self-Inflicted Wound
2 Molten Rain
1 Skullcrack

I first saw this style of deck on MTGO a few weeks ago when I was birding decklists trying to find a Burn build with some new game theory.  It was being piloted by Johnny Hotsauce (aka Andrew Shrout of SCG Fame).  Tasigur and Self-Inflicted Wound were the big innovations, along with going back to a Black build in general to get that hyper-tempo play of Bump in the Night.

Is Tasigur better than Grim Lavamancer?  Is Bump in the Night + Wound better than Boros Charm + White Sideboard Cards?

Yes and No.

Tasigur adds an element to the Burn deck that is both unexpected as well as difficult/impossible for some decks to deal with.  Decks like Twin and Grixis often only have a few removal or bounce spells to deal with him, and those are many times used up earlier on your other creatures or not found in time.  He comes down just about as early as he does in the Blue decks, often on turn 3, and sometimes just later when you’ve exhausted other spells but haven’t finished them yet.  He doesn’t die to the sweepers your other creatures do, and later in the game his activation ability DOES happen, bringing back Lightning Bolts for days.  You’ll need to be mindful of what cards you delve and such, but it’s pretty easy to setup his ability for value, along with potentially reducing opposing Tarmogoyfs.

Self-Inflicted Wound is solid all around, giving you nice answers to Primeval Titan, Elves, Jund, Abzan, Collected Company, Boggles, and some fringe matchups.  For instance, I played against Soul Sisters the other day and it surprised my opponent on turn 2 after he had played his Auriok Champion, which then lead to a Tasigur, which then led to an actual game won against an auto-lose matchup.  The drawback is mostly just that it’s a sorcery, and that it’s not a great answer to Kor Firewalker in Burn mirrors (in fact I don’t usually bring it in but I don’t blame anyone who does)

Grim Lavamancer is powerful, and he does more of what Burn wants to be doing, so I can completely side with anyone who intends to remain Naya or straight RW.  You’re just looking to kill your opponent, and he both provides that option through face bolts or by getting rid of creatures that make your job harder like Delver of Secrets and Heritage Druid.  In the sideboard, cards like Path to Exile, Deflecting Palm, Stony Silence, Circle of Protection: Red,  Kor Firewalker, and Lightning Helix all provide strong answers to decks in the Metagame, but most of them are equally questionable due to their lack of damage or built-in drawbacks.  Path gives your opponent a land, which can sometimes be the kill shot, Palm can be played around once they know you have it, Stony Silence can come online too late, COP can be sandbagged until they release their entire hand in a turn sometimes or be destroyed, Kor Firewalker is hard to cast with the lands in the deck, and Lightning Helix is another two mana burn spell in a deck that’s overloaded with them.

If anything, there’s one man who’s been getting it mostly right for the last full season.  I mentioned Jasper’s deck in my last article so I won’t list it again, but I strongly recommend checking that one out if you haven’t already.  He won a PPTQ with it, a friend of ours won a Las Vegas all-inclusive tournament, and they both top 8’d recently again at another PPTQ.  His list doesn’t get cute, it’s all business and all specific.  It eskews some of the more common choices, and I’m still not 100% sure it’s what yours truly wants to be doing, but it’s my usual go-to recommendation for most.  The man has been “on fire” in Magic, making the Pro Tour in most of the last few seasons along with a tough loss for his win-and-in at Grand Prix Las Vegas.  Fortunately two others from our Madison area made it into top 8, with one of them a well respected Aaron Lewis taking the whole thing down.  This community is serious when it comes to the game, and the results will keep rolling as a result.

The other deck that I think could be a stealth bomber is the following beauty:

RG Shamans by Clinton Weller

3 Bosk Banneret
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
2 Burning-Tree Shaman
4 Elvish Visionary
1 Eternal Witness
3 Flamekin Harbinger
1 Fulminator Mage
2 Ire Shaman
1 Prophetic Flamespeaker
4 Rage Forger
2 Scavenging Ooze
4 Simian Spirit Guide
3 Wolf-Skull Shaman

1 Shared Animosity

4 Lightning Bolt
2 Manamorphose

1 Thrun, the Last Troll

2 Forest
2 Mountain
2 Cavern of Souls
1 Fire-Lit Thicket
2 Mutavault
4 Stomping Ground
1 Verdant Catacombs
4 Wooded Foothills

Sideboard:
1 Sword of War and Peace
2 Essence Warden
1 Reclamation Sage
2 Blood Moon
2 Choke
1 Leyline of Punishment
1 Ancient Grudge
2 Combust
1 Destructive Revelry
1 Guttural Response
1 Lead the Stampede

Yeah I know.  Most people see this list and think, “how cute, he’s playing a tribal deck”.  For those people, I implore you to play 10 games with it.  I played 10 matches, and despite them being on Cockatrice which has its share of casuals, I won all 10.  This deck has some premium unleaded gasoline in it, and the ability to get out of just about any situation your opponent decides to put you in.  I didn’t even realize some of my favorites in this list were Shamans (I’m looking at you Flamespeaker), but thankfully they are.  Flamekin helps you tutor up answers early, while Eternal Witness helps you get them back.  But really, there’s one key reason why this deck is bananas:

rageforger

I had seen him in the past, but never took the time to fully contemplate the text.  This man puts Hellrider to shame.  One mana less, permanent +1/+1 Counters, and damage on attack.  Along with Flamekin and just by himself, he consistently enables early kills, usually on turn 4.  He is the key piece of the deck, and a way to give you a default win in matches where you’re not working around certain cards.

There’s a lot of incremental value in the deck too, with cards like Scavenging Ooze that work with Rage Forger, Manamorphose, Visionary, and Burning-Tree that help you cycle/accelerate through your deck.  The sideboard almost feels like you’re playing a Gifts deck since you can tutor some of your bullets for immediate use.   Bottom line, this is a sweet sweet brew, and I’d be very happy to PPTQ with it anyday.

Next big tournament for me on the horizon is the StarCityGames Open in Chicago on July 18th/19th.  Hopefully I’ll see some of you readers and listeners there while we break in Origins for one last hurrah with a Core Set.

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

Reign of Fire

atarkascommand

Reign of Fire

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

Podcasting, Testing, and Decision-Making

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

Card Knock Life:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Red Deck Podcast:

Episode 1

Episode 2

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

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

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

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

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

Jeskai Ascendancy Tokens, GW Devotion, and Abzan Aggro

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

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

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

deathmistraptordragonlorddromoka

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

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

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

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

dragonwhispererireshamanthunderbreakregentdraconicroarlightning-berserkerrendingvolleyroasttwinboltdragonfodder

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

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

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

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

raphaellevyMonoRed

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

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

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

– Poor Control matchup due to many dead cards

– Poor tokens matchup

– Whip/Hornet Queen issues

– Poor Mono Red / Jeskai Burn matchup

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

Here’s what I ultimately settled on:

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

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

4 Dragon Fodder
4 Hordeling Outburst
2 Outpost Siege
3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
1 Chained to the Rocks
1 Ultimate Price
4 Crackling Doom
4 Stoke the Flames

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

Sideboard
4 Thoughtseize
2 End Hostilities
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Utter End
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
2 Outpost Siege
1 Archfiend of Depravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Modern

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

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

TCG States (Illinois) 

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

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

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

19 Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burn by Jasper Johnson-Epstein

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

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

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

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

 Limited

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

Singing Off

Thank you all again for your support, and

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

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

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

Building A New Archetype

temurbattleragewallpaper

Building A New Archetype

One of the hardest things to do in competitive magic is to brew a new deck from the ground up.  Some of the most famous brewers in Magic history; Adrian Sullivan, Conley Woods, Sam Black, Brian Kowal, Patrick Chapin, etc, have all had to go through a lot of trial and error before finding something that sticks.  Often, one might be hellbent on getting an idea to work and put a huge amount of time and patience in only to have it turn into a scrap pile.

I myself have rarely had a brew that worked in tournament play.  Friday Night Magic is one thing, but once you’re playing against Tier 1 decks you need to not only have a deck that can play against the expected metagame, but one that is consistent.  Well, as hard as that is, and as often as I have piles upon piles of decklists that never go anywhere, there’s one recently that I really want to give a go at.

I’ve heard the chorus uttered time and time again, “This is the age of the internet, whatever you’re trying has not only been tried already, but the pros have already done it better and ruled it out”.  That’s a statement I want to take aim at, because while there’s some truth to it, it’s also quite flawed.  For starters, not everything has been tried just because of the internet.  Sometimes the best ideas only come out because someone actually takes the time to keep drilling and drilling away at a deck until the right piece just clicks, and you won’t get that by pouring over endless decklists or “jamming a few games”.  Furthermore, Magic players are lazy these days.  The internet provides so much information that it’s easy to copy a successful list, tweak a card or two, and be comfortable with it.  If you’re winning, why waste your time with potentially awful brews?

Because creativity is not only fun, sometimes it can be the key to breaking a format.

Being someone that’s played since the early days of Magic, I remember when all you could do is brew.  I went to Regionals, PTQs, and other high level tournaments where someone would have an incredible breakout deck and tear through opponents all day because they had predictable strategies and didn’t have the sideboard cards or awareness needed to stop this new menace.  One such tournament in particular was quite memorable.  It was the 2009 Regionals in Chicago (a feeder tournament into U.S. Nationals at the time).  A breakout deck called “Seismic Swans” took 3rd place and just about took down the whole thing.  It would later become a staple of the format.  It centered around this combination of cards which later would extend into older formats as well:

seismicassaultswansofbrynargoll

For those not familiar, you could continually pitch lands for damage to your Swans and draw cards.  With a high land count, you could pretty much guarantee drawing more lands to continue the chain, while at the same time gaining cards to kill your opponent (either more lands to throw at them or other enablers).  The deck was efficient, reliable, and could go off on turn 4 or 5 consistently.

That was one example of a successful brew that required finding the right combinations and ideas, but another actually came out of that same tournament by a close childhood friend of mine.  My friend, Pat Kenealy, played his home-brewed Elementals list to a 25th place finish.  Elementals had been used in Lorwyn to some mild success, but not so far at all in that Standard season.  His deck caught the attention of a national writer, and then subsequently caught the attention of a local pro Matt Severa who performed well with it at U.S. Nationals and other high level tournaments.  While still an outlier archetype, it became a mainstay of the format and another proving point that brews CAN be figured out and work at the competitive level with enough patience.

Immense Rage

The deck I’ve been working on for the past few weeks may not obtain any lofty goals.  In fact, my only goal with it is to try and make it reasonably competitive on the tournament level, but if it doesn’t win any tournaments that’s fine by me.  This is one of those articles I’d love to get feedback on, similar ideas, suggestions on direction, etc.  Basically it’s a pile of pet cards on my part, mixtures of ideas I’ve seen, and intuitions from me.  I’m going to go over cards that have been in consideration or should be considered, some early lists, and potential new shifts the archetype could take.

The central focus is around three cards that have a soft spot in this Red Mage’s heart:

propheticflamespeakerbecomeimmensetemurbattlerage

Note, these three cards aren’t meant to all be played together obviously, they are just the build-around cards.  Prophetic Flamespeaker is a sweet Magic card, and one that almost anyone you talk to who likes playing Red really wants to play.  Sadly, there’s always just “something” wrong with it that makes it sit on the bench.  It shows up here and there, but ultimately the stats, the lack of haste, or something intangible holds it back.  I think that still could remain true, but today we’re here to try.

Become Immense caught my eye after seeing it in a few Temur and RG Aggro lists as a one-of, often for huge surprise value and some free win potential.  Following that, I started seeing the same from Temur Battle Rage, including getting mauled by it at a PTQ in my hometown from an area pro.  We talked briefly after the match, he was running it as a 3-of in his Temur list and it made his Savage Knuckleblade quite silly.

Tom Ross and The Pantheon played Become Immense as a staple in their infect deck, and while it was particularly helped out by a faster format with a greater card pool and more specifically Wild Defiance, there’s still potential for crossover in Standard.

Lastly on this point, some of you probably remember this card, which was absolutely insane in combination with Ghor-Clan Rampager:

armed_dangerous

Starting with Prophetic Flamespeaker, there’s some obvious angles to approach.  I wanted to include some pump spells, as making him big is the name of the game.  Become Immense is one such spell, but it’s not particularly cheap all the time, and it needs some support to get you to 20 damage.  Here’s some of the Standard considerables that I’ve glossed over:

titansstrengthgathercouragetitanicgrowthmortalsresolverangersguileSetessanTacticsmogis'swarhoundhammerhandinfernofistdragongripdragonmantle

There are others besides these, but this is a slightly narrowed down list due to their various purposes.  Being one mana is important, and those that aren’t are providing a utility or power level that is unparalleled by their counterparts.  Ranger’s Guile, while relatively weak on paper, could be something to mise or include solely because it helps to prevent the blowouts which are likely to occur when you can’t “play around” what your opponent is doing.  People have a lot of removal at their disposal in Standard, and this deck will require more than patience if it is to be successful.  It’s going to have some games where you just can’t force things through, wait for opportunities, or play as intended.  This is just part of the ball game with a psuedo-combo deck such as this one.

Besides Flamespeaker, we need some additional creatures for these pump spells to hit, or ones that we can turn into potential Flamespeakers with Temur Battle Rage.  The logical path is to find creatures that are cheap in cost, have evasion or trample, and are already aggressive.  There’s a pretty big list of ones that fit those categories, so again I’ll narrow it down to choices that catch my eye more than others:

archetypeofaggressionfanaticofxenagosflamewake phoenixmonasteryswiftspeartwo-headedcerberusyasovadragonclaw

Fanatic of Xenagos is probably the best of these, mostly because it’s a big body for its cost and it has the all important Trample that makes your pump spells go from cute to deadly.  It can be haste at times, allowing for the unprepared opponent to just be dead on the spot in game 1.  Flamewake Phoenix is much in the same vein, albeit with a smaller body.  Sadly, the majority of these creatures cost three mana, clogging up an already occupied spot with Flamespeaker.  Swiftspear is partially included on the list for this reason, and also due to the fact that she’s just a solid aggro card especially in a deck that can enable prowess often.

While playing some of the initial lists I had, one problem that came up often was making Become Immense cheap enough that I could threaten playing it alongside of other pump or protection spells.  Delve is an extremely powerful mechanic, so I turned to other lists which abused it well.  In those lists, I found the following cards which I believe will ultimately be a part of any final lists that come about:

satyrwayfindertormentingvoice

Satyr Wayfinder, while not a particularly aggressive card, is a fantastic delve enabler and a body nonetheless for when you don’t have anything else to do or just need something to make huge.  Tormenting Voice helps to keep you on track for combo-ing out, fight through resistance and removal, and fuels delve.  I think there’s other cards out there as well that would serve similar purposes, but again this is still a work in progress so I’d love to hear more opinions on it.  Cards like Commune with the Gods could take the deck on a more enchantment heavy route, potentially even going so far as to splash a third color like Black for Whip of Erebos and Murderous Cut.  But that would require even more work to figure out a decent build, so for right now I’m sticking with straight RG.

After adding some delve enablers, I thought that I’d look at some other potential delve cards in RG that could be useful.  There’s actually only one other card, and while some might raise the skeptical eyebrow, it synergizes fairly well with the rest of the deck.  It’s a card I’ve seen tried out in some Modern lists, but rarely ever in Standard:

hootingmandrills

My first few cracks with this guy were impressive.  Getting both him and Become Immense to be 1 to 2 mana cards is not hard at all with this archetype.  Sure, like most of the cards here he gets outclassed by Siege Rhino and other big creatures in Standard, but all we need is a turn or two where we can make them pay.  His trample and big body go a long way in getting there, and the other spells are what we hope can do the rest.

The big key overall though with this deck will be consistency and being able to beat the other known archetypes out there.  Let’s look at some of the bigger players and think about how to approach beating them.

RW Aggro

Definitely one of the most popular archetypes around, and a particularly powerful one.  To be successful, we’ll need to be able to have our creatures survive through burn spells, go for broke on the turns when they’re tapped out, and keep a very watchful eye on our life total.  Cards like Searing Blood and Wild Slash make sense to me here, as they allow us to keep pace with the tempo and catch up in damage races.  They also are cheap enough to help fuel delve, and to keep our curve low.  Arc Lightning is another contender out of the sideboard to make sure the tokens don’t overrun us before we overrun them.  Chandra and Barrage of Boulders could be good to force our Voltron’d guy through while at the same time keeping those tokens down in combination with the previous mentions.

Abzan

While the various flavors require specific addressing, assuming a mostly midrange list our biggest worries are Siege Rhino, Thoughtseize, plentiful removal, and the ability to block.  Cards like Hammerhand and Ranger’s Guile increase in value here, with Hunt the Hunter being a potential powerhouse out of the board.  We may also need to increase the amount of fliers available, since trampling over might not always be realistic.  Lightning Strike could be something required for Fleecemane Lion builds, but again we don’t want too many cards that stray from our core strategy.  The more reactive we get, the less consistent the deck’s ability becomes.  Abzan will likely require a lot of practice and thought to truly iron out, as it’s one of the best decks in the format at breaking apart ideas since it plays the bread and butter of Magic; good creatures and removal.

Control (Sultai, UB)

By nature, Control decks have a great ability to stop combo decks since they have mostly counterspells and removal, in addition to these ones having Thoughtseize.  Tormenting Voice and playing aggressive cards help, but we’ll definitely need to get more aggressive post-board regardless of what the maindeck looks like.  That could mean removing pump spells and combo pieces while at the same time transitioning into a more straight-forward RG deck which Control decks usually have trouble with.  It could just mean lowering our curve; bringing in additional cheap threats like Firedrinker Saytr.  Or it could mean to vary our threats by having cards like Ashcloud Phoenix, Shaman of the Great Hunt, and/or Stormbreath Dragon.  One of the nice things here at least is that Control decks are often punished when they have to tap out, mostly for wraths or draw spells.  So if we can take advantage of that fact and force them into situations where we get a turn to punish them, that will be a key focus.

GR Monsters

Monsters is likely to be one of the easier matches, because they have very few ways to interact with our combos.  Outside of Crater’s Claws and the occasional Strike or Slash, we can basically just assemble voltron and force it through their creatures.  Game 1’s will also be easier when they are likely to take an aggressive posture and open themselves for a gigantic counter-attack.  Post board they’ll bring in more removal, and the gameplan should be largely similar to what it is against Abzan or RW.

 Tying It All Together

These are a few of my very early rough sketches, builds that I’ve been playing with over the last few weeks or just recently developing.  They are truly rough, so please don’t just jam these 75s and think they’re ready for showtime.  This is again very much a work in progress and a jumping off point for ideas, wherever those may lead.  They all have flaws, and hopefully this article and future work by readers and myself can bring polish.

Immense Rage Build 1

Maindeck (60 Cards)

4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Satyr Wayfinder
4 Fanatic of Xenagos
4 Prophetic Flamespeaker
4 Hooting Mandrills
(20 Creatures)

4 Wild Slash or Hammerhand
4 Gather Courage
4 Temur Battle Rage
4 Become Immense
3 Tormenting Voice
(19 Spells)

4 Temple of Abandon
4 Wooded Foothills
2 Mana Confluence
5 Forest
6 Mountain
(21 Lands)

Sideboard (15 Cards)
1 Arc Lightning
1 Searing Blood
2 Lightning Strike
1 Ashcloud Phoenix
2 Firedrinker Satyr
2 Ranger’s Guile
3 Hunt the Hunter
1 Chandra, Pyromaster
1 Stormbreath Dragon
1 Forest

This first build is basically ground zero and the one I’ve put the most games in with.  It has the synergistic pieces that I’d like to build around, and a reasonable shell to work with.  There’s lots of work needed, but it’s a playable start.

The next build is what we get if we try to build around the existing shell of another successful deck.  In this case, I was building off recent SCG LA Open winner Chad White’s list.  That’s not going to lead to a workable list right away, but it provides a foundation to build from that is a little more proven:

Immense Rage Build 2

Maindeck (60 Cards)

4 Satyr Wayfinder
4 Prophetic Flamespeaker
4 Fanatic of Xenagos
3 Hooting Mandrills
4 Stormbreath Dragon
(19 Creatures)

4 Become Immense
3 Lightning Strike
2 Temur Battle Rage
4 Titan’s Strength
2 Titanic Growth
2 Tormenting Voice
(17 Spells)

4 Temple of Abandon
2 Rugged Highlands
4 Wooded Foothills
1 Mana Confluence
4 Forest
9 Mountain
(24 Lands)

Sideboard (15 Sideboard Cards)
3 Ashcloud Phoenix
2 Destructive Revelry
2 Wild Slash
3 Fated Conflagration
2 Arc Lightning
1 Chandra, Pyromaster

Up next we have one based off of a more similar deck, UW Heroic from Grand Prix Seville:

Immense Rage Build 3

Maindeck (60 Cards)

2 Satyr Hoplite
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Satyr Wayfinder
2 Arena Athlete
4 Prophetic Flamespeaker
(16 Creatures)

4 Gather Courage
4 Dragon Mantle
3 Titan’s Strength
1 Titanic Growth
1 Ranger’s Guile
3 Hammerhand
4 Become Immense
4 Temur Battle Rage
(24 Spells)

3 Forest
6 Mountain
3 Mana Confluence
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Temple of Abandon
(20 Lands)

Sideboard (15 Cards)
2 Tormenting Voice
3 Ranger’s Guile
1 Destructive Revelry
3 Mortal’s Resolve
3 Harness by Force
3 Wild Slash

Lastly here is one based off of the Modern Twin Exarch deck:

Immense Rage Build 4

Maindeck (60 Cards)

2 Fanatic of Xenagos
4 Prophetic Flamespeaker
2 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Satyr Wayfinder
1 Hooting Mandrills
(13 Creatures)

2 Temur Battle Rage
4 Become Immense
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
4 Dragon Mantle
2 Arc Lightning
4 Wild Slash
3 Titanic Growth
2 Ranger’s Guile
1 Tormenting Voice
(24 Spells)

4 Wooded Foothills
4 Temple of Abandon
2 Rugged Highlands
2 Mana Confluence
4 Mountain
5 Forest
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Windswept Heath
(23 Lands)

Sideboard
1 Ranger’s Guile
1 Harness by Force
1 Xenagos, God of Revels
2 Destructive Revelry
2 Mortal’s Resolve
2 Fated Conflagration
1 Magma Spray
1 Arc Lightning
2 Hammerhand
2 Outpost Siege

Conclusion

Hopefully this article doesn’t turn people off, I thought it’d be a nice change of pace from the usual tournament reports and metagame discussion.  It’s a rogue idea, but we all love Red cards here and big things, so I’m guessing Immense Rage will be up some of your alleys.  These lists are in the super early stages, so they require much of the hard work needed by master magicians, but the idea is the key.

Late Edit:  As I prepared the finishing touches on this article last night, I found a great companion piece from Pro Tour player Seth Manfield on TCG Player.  His list has Flamewake Phoenix and more burn, potentially another great route to investigate further.  Definitely worth checking out if you liked the subject here.

As Always,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

mantisriderwallpaper

Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here was what I ended up playing:

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

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

3 Outpost Siege
2 Dig Through Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

top8standingsMinnesota

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

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

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

Playing Jeskai in the Future and Looking at RW Aggro

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

Jeskai Aggro – John Galli, Post-Qualifier Build

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

4 Monastery Siege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Future

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

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

– Red Deck Winning

Trending: Analyzing The Metagame

shamanofthegreathunt

 Trending:  Analyzing The Metagame

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

Out (Main):

goblinrabblemasterarclightning

In (Main):

brimazkingoforeskossarkhanthedragonspeakermagmajet

 

In (Side):

magmasprayerase

Out (Side):

brimazkingoforeskos

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

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

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

A Brave New World

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

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

anchormansaywhat

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

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

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

valorousstance

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

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

Creatures (16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Sarkhan, The Dragonspeaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

fanaticofmogis

Let me tell you what this feels like:

champagneexplosion

#BOOM #VERYNICE

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

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

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

RW Devotion by John Galli – 1/28/2015

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

4 Magma Jet
2 Arc Lightning
4 Chained to the Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
20 Mountain

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

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

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

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

4 Temple of Triumph
4 Battlefield Forge
2 Plains
10 Mountain

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

Metagame Calls

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

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

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

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

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

How do we attack each of these?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This screams out one thing at me.

S-L-O-W

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

hordelingoutburstmercilousexecutionerflamewake phoenixabzanadvantagethoughtseizeridedowntymaretthemurderkingvalorousstanceboonoferebosheirofthewildsfrostwalkerstubborndenial

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

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

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

arclightningvalorousstance

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

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

BR Aggro, 4th Place PPTQ

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

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

23 lands (unknown)

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

Mono Black Aggro, 1st Place PPTQ

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

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

13 Swamps
1 Mountain
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Caves of Koilos

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

As Always, thank you for reading,

And Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

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