Riding In Minneapolis, A PTQ Top 8

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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

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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

Solving Standard And What To Do In Broken Formats

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Solving Standard And What To Do In Broken Formats

In the last few weeks I’ve been able to get a grip on what I believe is the answer to winning in the current Standard format.  I’m going to walk through some of that today as well as expand upon my ideas for Modern and Legacy.  After the last article I wrote there were a lot of requests for more information about the Eternal formats, and I think there’s still much to discuss despite some elements of “being broken”.  Plus, I have some sweet decklists to share that I hope you all enjoy.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The first five turns in the Standard format are all that matters.  What you do in these turns dictates the tempo of the game and almost always determines who the eventual winner will be.  There are a few outliers to this, but I think the reason some people are losing more often than others, or some decks are falling in and out of favor, is because they don’t follow the importance of tempo in this format.  You should have an active board presence play as well as a reactionary play for every one of these turns set aside a few exceptions.  Let’s look at some of the top options for pacing:

Turn 1:  Unless you are playing Boss Sligh, Elvish Mystic, or a two-color deck, you should be leading with a tapland.  Three/Four color decks that are trying to play Thoughtseize maindeck on turn 1 or one-drop creatures are making a huge mistake by not advancing the game plan for turns 2-5.  Elvish Mystic lets you jump tempo, but in three color decks it also requires that your manabase is greedier.  In order to hit all three colors or ramp into something other than say, Goblin Rabblemaster, you’ll need to play more painlands to accommodate.  Temur does this, and due to its raw aggression on the next few turns it’s successfully able to do that, but it comes at the cost of precious life which can be huge in some matchups.  This is one of the reasons Brian Kibler was kept out of the Top 8 at Grand Prix L.A.  He later fixed the issue with better sideboarding for Aggro decks, but that still isn’t the complete answer since the same manabase largely is required.

Turn 2:

seekerofthewaysylvancaryatidfleecemane-lionsatyrwayfinderbattlewisehopliteheirofthewilds

All of the above cards are either threats that create issues immediately or setup cards for later turns.  These are the pillar two drops of Standard and I occasionally see people cutting some of them from their list or deciding to not run them at all.  While you may not want to always cast each one of them on turn 2 it doesn’t change the fact that by not playing cards like this you give up a lot of tempo.  I’ve personally playtested with a lot of lists that have more of a control role, and it’s easy to get punished in this format for just sitting back.  Even if you’re trying to play a burn style deck, you have to have follow up with plays that can end the game.  It’s one of the reasons that you need both the presence spells as well as the reactionary spells.  Thus, in addition to these guys, you should also have a playset of a reactionary card such as Bile Blight, Lightning Strike, God’s Willing (lumping it in this category), etc.

I often find many games are won by allowing your opponent to play their expected card, removing it, and then playing the equivalent or the next card up on the casting cost chain.  This is the key to keeping the tempo pushed, and if you can do this on every turn or every other turn it’s pretty hard to lose a game in this format.  Don’t be the first to jump the gun unless you are playing against a pure Control deck.

Turn 3:

goblinrabblemasterbrimazkingoforeskosfanaticofxenagoscourserofkruphix\savageknuckleblademantisrider

Like the two drops, these are all threats that end games on their own.  Courser is a little different in how he achieves the result, but the amount of lifegain his ability adds up to in the typical game is often the difference in winning and losing for his respective archetypes, so he’s equally important to kill.

The reactionary cards here would be Crackling Doom, Hero’s Downfall, all the charms, Banishing Light, Arc Lightning, etc.  The two drop removal is more important IMO because often you’ll play them on turn three to trigger prowess or jump tempo by playing more two drop removal than three, but all of the three drop removal presented here are hard answers to just about everything that exists, and that’s crucial in its own right.

Turn 4:

ashcloudphoenixbutcherofthehordesiegerhinosidisibroodtyrantpolukranossorinsolemnvisitor

 

The four drops here are all virtually impossible to deal with set aside select spot removal spells.  Siege Rhino is obviously the worst offender and the biggest reason why Abzan is the top tribe at the moment, but all of these cards are deadly.  It’s fairly obvious with the four spot why it’s so important, and why cutting any of these cards from your list is wrong.  Many people don’t like to give Ashcloud Phoenix any love, but its quickly become one of my all-time favorite Red cards.  Killing a Phoenix outside of cards like Abzan Charm, Utter End, or Banishing Light is quite difficult, and against most decks he often forces 2-for-1 trades, unmorphs for value, or simply flies in on multiple trips for the eventual lethal blow.  Even just using him to stall an Aggro deck’s gameplan is a valid route, and oftentimes a problem they cannot resolve.

The reactionary cards on four are less available or necessary since most of your tempo is going to be devoted lower, but cards such as Utter End, Stoke the Flames, and Silence the Believers can still add dimensions to your deck.  Stoke the Flames in particular was a card I recently added to my Mardu list that completely changed my win percentage.  I was having a lot of trouble winning consistently against Jeskai with Brad Nelson’s old build (with Hordeling Outbursts), and as soon as I copied Jeskai’s burn suite but had better creatures and walkers than they did, the tide shifted dramatically.  It also helped me across the board, allowing my Mardu deck to be a straight burn deck in a large percentage of games.  If your opponent doesn’t play something you can react to, especially post board, you often just play as a Burn/Control deck and force them into a point in the midgame where they have to make terrible decisions.  By the time the opponent catches on to what is happening, it’s usually too late.

Turn 5:

wingmaterocsarkhanthedragonspeakerstormbreathdragonsurrakdragonclawarborcolossusdoomwakegiant

The above, and a few others in Standard, represent the end game.  All of these cards either win on the spot, kill creatures, or provide a bonus to your entire team that is near impossible to fight through.  I have no problem maxing out on the five drop assuming you’re running a 24-26 land build as you’ll regularly be able to cast these and if the rest of your deck is pushing tempo you should be able to use these creatures as they were appropriately designed.

The reactionary cards on five aren’t usually ones you’d cast at five mana, but I’d still consider Murderous Cut, Boon Satyr and Herald of Torment as Bestows, and things of that nature in this classification.  They’re far less important to have, and as such I don’t think they’re completely necessary, but all of them function as fantastic misers.

Bottom Line:  Standard is won by tempo.  Use playsets of each category at each mana cost, or double up on certain areas, and your deck will be consistent and competitive.  Shaving numbers in this range is only going to increase your variance and not allow you to respond with what is fairly stock at this point in Standard.  The outliers would be Control and Sultai decks, where the gameplans are completely different.  Control is simply trying to have answers to the conceivable threats, while Sultai is playing cards that trump the majority and attempting to setup an inevitable victory through their long game.  Sultai is especially strong in this respect because cards like Whip of Erebos and Hornet Queen require specific answers which are generally not in most maindecks and this can often create an auto-win in those scenarios.

My Standard Decks

I’ve been working on two Standard decks at the moment; Mardu Midrange and GR Aggro.  Both have put up great results and I’m very happy with how they’re built.  I’m still working on a few changes to adapt them for the Sultai matchup (as again it’s an outlier), but otherwise the performances and tempo have been quite impressive in tournament play.  Here are the lists and how I approach them:

Mardu Midrange by Red Deck Winning 11/23/2014

4 Seeker of the Way
4 Goblin Rabblemaster
4 Butcher of the Horde

3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
4 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

4 Magma Jet
4 Lightning Strike
4 Crackling Doom
4 Stoke the Flames

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

Sideboard
3 Thoughtseize
2 End Hostilities
2 Utter End
2 Bile Blight
2 Magma Spray
2 Erase
1 Murderous Cut
1 Anger of the Gods

If I were to make any changes for tomorrow it would only be to potentially cut a Lightning Strike, Seeker of the Way, and/or Stoke the Flames for some number of Bile Blights so as to have maindeck outs for Hornet Queen.  That said, removing those cards is not great for the deck overall, so unless Sultai is a major player in the game the above should suffice and is excellent.  I’m rarely confident in my decklists, despite brewing and practicing for hours a day, but at the current moment I’m happy with them in every format.

Sideboarding:

Abzan:  Abzan’s a deck that has a better end game and can topdeck very well.  The way I’ve beat it consistently is to play a control role like them but also bring in trump cards.  Thoughtseize is very important post-board despite many players thinking it’s wise to take it out in Midrange matchups.  The theory there is that since there is redundancy and great topdeck ability that Thoughtseize just takes one threat and you get killed by another.  That’s not untrue, but in this case, you’re often taking a Planeswalker or Removal spell.  This allows you to curve into End Hostilities or other removal spells and then drop your threats unabated.  To further cement the ability to handle their topdecks, you’re bringing in better removal in the form of Utter End, Erase (Courser, Whip, etc), and Murderous Cut.  Usually you can cut your small creatures or small burn, typically a combination depending on what you see from them.  If they are on the Fleecemain plan, then Lightning Strike is still valuable, but Magma Jet isn’t other than its filtering capabilities.  You may just want to cut all creatures in some scenarios, which allows you to basically play Mardu Planeswalkers and follow up your wraths with Sorin and Sarkhan.  Butcher can also be a good followup in these same scenarios.  Don’t be afraid to keep in some small creatures as all of them are capable of pushing tempo, just as long as you know from your opening hand or soon into it whether or not you’re going to need to go the End Hostilities route.  If so, you’ll need to sandbag as best as possible.

Jeskai:  The Jeskai matchup is very easy most of the time.  Since I made the changes to my list, I still have yet to lose to it, and often not many close games.  If you’re on the play you can jam Seeker and force them to deal with it, along with if you’re on the draw and they do not have a turn 2 Seeker of their own.  Otherwise, besides that crucial facet, you just sit back and wait for them to play stuff, burning them on their end step if you have enough excess burn and their hand is slow.  This also applies if they are waiting themselves for you to play things.  You’re late game is better than theirs, with the only threat of theirs being Dig Through Time, so you can hang in that race.  If you have an opening to play a turn 4 Sorin, go ahead and do it and make a Vampire.  It’s always a 2-for-1 situation for them to deal with it, and it’s another aspect of the match where you can thus gain value.

Sideboard-wise, you can go heavy control, bringing out the Seekers, Rabblemasters, and some number of Butchers.  All your post-board removal is great (set aside Erase), and other than them having Stoke the Flames and some sideboard cards for your Planeswalkers, it’s a rough uphill battle to beat you.  Yes, they have Jeskai Charm, but you also have Crackling Doom which puts a trump on anything they play while advancing the burn plan.  Also, in both the case of Abzan and Jeskai, they often tend to sideboard into a control deck as well, which is advantageous for you in both instances.  Against Abzan your tempo is faster so you can get underneath them, and against Jeskai you go over the top.  The key against Abzan is just making sure they don’t get to raid a Wingmate Roc, and against Jeskai that they don’t have a crazy burn hand followed by Dig Through Time, but that’s variance that you can’t adjust for.

UW Heroic:  UW Heroic is the hot flavor of the month, and that’s generally good for you as Mardu has one of the best matchups against it of any deck.  Your plethora of early burn spells allows you to kill just about any creature you see, and ultimately drop a threat when you can turn the corner.  If you have an opening to remove something, absolutely do so.  The UW deck is excellent, and capable of voltron’ing a guy in no-time, so it’s very critical to always try to answer what they do.  Oftentimes if you can, play removal at the end of their turn as it will force them to burn spells and mana and let you get the guy on your following main phase.  Crackling Doom is the soul-crusher, and often what decides the match pre-board.  Both pre and post board, they can still kill you no matter how good your hand is with a huge amount of God’s Willing, Feat of Resistance, and Stubborn Denials, so don’t feel bad if it happens.  They have draws that are just unbeatable for every deck in the format.  Overall you are heavily favored here, and can again just board the Control plan.

Control:  Control is one of the tougher matches at times, but very winnable.  You play the aggressor, bringing in Thoughtseize, Erase, Utter End and usually removing some number of burn spells.  Typically it’s Lightning Strike or Crackling Doom depending on their list.  Seeker and Rabblemaster are must answer threats early for them, and if you get to a mid-point in the game where you’re able to land any of your creatures alongside of one of your planeswalkers it’s pretty impossible for them to fight back effectively.  Some lists run Perilous Vault, but that’s mostly been abandoned because of how slow it is and rightfully so.  I find the tougher lists simply counter most of what you do and then play Pearl Lake Ancient, so usually in those scenarios your two drops are quite valuable and burning them on their end step as often as possible.

Temur:  Sideboarding against Temur will vary based on their build as it can be all over the place, but usually your plan here is to bring in your additional spot removal spells.  You’re not playing Control here, you’re playing full tempo.  Play a guy, kill a guy, play a guy, kill a guy, etc, etc.  Butcher’s lifegain is incredibly important, as well as trying to get opportunities to play two spells a turn and making sure you’re counting up your damage as often as possible to avoid getting bent by an infinitely large Crater’s Claws.  Your planeswalkers are slow here, so usually they’re the first things to cut, making your deck just focus on its low end.  Sorin’s lifegain can be valuable, but they’re typically killing a lot of your guys too, so he’s usually too little too late.  If you think it’s worthwhile, bring in Thoughtseize, but the lifeloss can be a real killer sometimes.  Magma Spray is important to have something to kill Elvish Mystic on the draw or to respond to Boon Satyr if they’re playing it.  Feel free to swap these for a few Magma Jets in those scenarios.

Sultai:  I’m still working on my gameplan for the Sultai match, but at this point it’s to be an Aggro deck with access to Bile Blight, Anger of the Gods, and Erase.  You are faster than them, you just simply need to avoid them getting Whip or Hornet Queen online.  Courser is a tough roadblock too, so basically if you see any of those three cards kill them on first sight.  You cannot in any respect compete with their end game, so it’s not worth trying to.  End Hostilities is worth bringing in just on the offchance you get behind but see an angle to steal it, but Anger is much better and probably the card that needs to be increased out of the board.  Utter End and the better spot removal also comes in, and most of the burn suite aside from Stoke can be cut for everything mentioned.

Mardu Mirror:  Most builds of Mardu aren’t as burn heavy as you, so you’re taking advantage of that by playing like a Jeskai deck would against them.  A lot of Mardu builds will play Hordeling Outburst, which you typically don’t care about as it really doesn’t do anything other than provide food for Butcher (which you’ll kill).  Wingmate Roc can be controlled in this matchup by controlling their previous threats to it.  Elspeth is a great card, but she’s slow, and if you get in enough damage with your creatures your burn will typically finish them off before she’s a factor.  The Mardu builds playing heavier Planeswalkers or Thoughtseize will take a lot of damage from themselves or not be able to handle two spells a turn very well, so your aggro/burn slant again capitalizes on this.

GR Aggro by Red Deck Winning 11/23/2014

4 Elvish Mystic
4 Heir of the Wilds
4 Boon Satyr
4 Fanatic of Xenagos
4 Ashcloud Phoenix
2 Stormbreath Dragon
2 Xenagos, God of Revels

2 Chandra, Pyromaster

4 Lightning Strike
4 Crater’s Claws
2 Savage Punch

5 Forest
5 Mountain
2 Mana Confluence
4 Rugged Highlands
4 Temple of Abandon
4 Wooded Foothills

Sideboard
3 Fated Conflagration
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Firedrinker Satyr
2 Searing Blood
2 Magma Spray
2 Hunt the Hunter
1 Reclamation Sage
1 Burn Away

This deck is still in the testing phase, but I’ve been able to get a significant number of playtesting games in both online and in-person with it.  So far, its been a fantastic aggressive build that is a smidge faster than some of the bigger GR lists running around and it has some very cool cards for Red mages.  There’s just something awesome about the raw power of dropping dragon after dragon and bestowing Boon Satyrs on them.  Heir of the Wilds is an incredible two-drop, stymieing the big threats you’ll see in other decks or just becoming a card they can’t handle if it manages to get bestowed.  There’s a few odd choices, such as the lack of Rabblemaster or Courser and the increased presence of Phoenix and Chandra.

Originally Rabblemaster was just skewed because it was in my other deckbox and I didn’t want to bother digging it out, but ultimately I actually liked the change since I wanted my three drops to be as aggressive as possible and all trigger Ferocious without having to attack.  Turns out, Fanatic of Xenagos and Boon Satyr are both incredible, so you should definitely try them in your lists if you haven’t already.

Phoenix is simply the best four drop available in this deck, as this format is still largely vulnerable to fliers and he’s impressive for all of the reasons I discussed earlier in the article.  Chandra is here almost solely to make blockers step aside, but she’s also relevant against Aggro and is amazing when you get to play her on turn 3 off an Elvish Mystic.

I do want to make some changes yet, probably sooner rather than later.  Savage Punch has been surprisingly strong, so I believe a third one is warranted.  Crater’s Claws is fantastic late game, but I miss having the extra early burn from my Mardu deck on turn 2, so possibly some number of Magma Jets or even Stoke the Flames could be seen here instead.  I still want Crater’s Claws, but it’s probably a 2-of rather than the full playset.

Xenagos, God of Revels was just an idea since I remember how powerful the card was a few Standard seasons ago, and while it’s good here I think Stormbreath is the better card.  Running the playset of Stormbreaths is taking the more aggressive slant most of the time and Xenagos doesn’t provide any outlier value by being in that slot over him.  He’s just a crazy fun card to see in action, but this deck was meant for competitive play.  Sarkhan certainly could be an option too, so the 2-2 split between him and Stormbreath is a fair line if you think that is for the best.

Sideboarding:

The sideboard plan is still not solidified, but here’s the quick run down:

Abzan:  In comes Fated Conflagration, Hunt the Hunter, Burn Away, and Reclamation Sage.  Out comes Lightning Strike and Crater’s Claws most of the time.  Your burn suite is usually lackluster, and you need to have real answers for their very real creatures.  Fated is a great way to at least clear a Siege Rhino off the board, along with Courser or anything else annoying.  You’re a quicker deck than them, and you have Heir of the Wilds that can fight any of their creatures for a kill.  Oftentimes, even just Savage Punching with Ferocious on your Fanatic of Xenagos will take the game since having a 6/6 Trample and killing one of their guys is the absolute best.

Jeskai:  Against Jeskai you’re playing tempo wars, so stuff like Searing Blood and Magma Spray can be solutions to falling behind.  Xenagos and Stormbreath can both be slow, although the latter’s protection from white comes into relevance in many games (especially since they can’t Jeskai Charm it).  You can also bring in Fated Conflagration if you want bigger removal and filtering depending on their build or Anger of the Gods if their build is mostly small.

UW Heroic:  A good friend of mine plays this, and the first time he sat down to play against my GR deck he thought it was going to be a cakewalk.  A match or two later and he realized how close it was, and that’s largely because you play more burn and are more aggressive than most GR builds.  Crater’s Claws is at it’s lowest point here, as it just takes too long to kill many of their guys.  Magma Spray, Searing Blood, Anger, and Reclamation Sage all clean up the slack in games 2 and 3 and allow you to have the right answers for their guys.  The beauty of this deck too is that a lot of your guys have either haste or flash, so if they don’t do much on their turn you can usually play a guy, steal their tempo, and then remove the threat they make on the next turn.  Heir of the Wilds is valuable when they don’t have Stratus Walk or Aqueous Form, and Chandra can get you past a voltron’d creature if the board has been stalled.

Control:  I would like more cards for this matchup, although at the very least you are so aggressive that I believe this will often be the difference.  I haven’t played many games, so feel free to do your own testing, but the idea is that Ashcloud Phoenix if resolved is very difficult to answer, and post board you can bring in Reclamation Sage, Fated Conflagration, and Firedrinker Satyr to both be faster as well as have solid answers for their Planeswalkers.  Savage Punch and any combination of burn spells are the usual cuts.

Temur:  My same friend who plays UW Heroic asked me why I was playing straight RG over Temur, and I think the honest answer is the importance of your life total.  Temur’s manabase is very greedy, with tons of painlands and a heavy reliance on hitting an extra color.  In this GR list, you only run 2 Mana Confluence, and you get access to 4 lifegain lands as well as just being generally fine with what colors you need on a given turn.  Additionally, Temur lists are often running extra mana rampers, such as Caryatid or Rattleclaw Mystic, versus you being able to just run threats.  It is sad to miss out on some of the fantastic blue cards such as Knuckleblade, Stubborn Denial, and Temur Charm, but you largely make up for these with similar ones of your own.  In this match I usually cut Crater’s Claws, the top end of the creatures, and Chandra to make room for Conflagration, Searing Blood, Magma Spray, and Hunt the Hunter.

Sultai:  I haven’t played this matchup yet, but the plan is Anger of the Gods, Magma Spray, Searing Blood, Reclamation Sage, Burn Away*** and possibly Fated Conflagration.  Cuts would likely be the burn spells that don’t do anything, such as Lightning Strike and some number of Crater’s Claws.

Mardu:  Against Mardu you’re the aggressor and generally just need access to Searing Blood out of the board to speed your deck up a smidge.  You can also bring in Fated Conflagration if you believe they are on the Elsepth/Sarkhan plan.  Typical cuts are Chandra and/or Savage Punch or Crater’s Claws.

Modern and Legacy

Modern

I played in my local store’s first StarCityGames Super IQ tournament this past Saturday which was the Modern format.  I was very on the fence about it because of how unfair I think Treasure Cruise is along with Delver, but I didn’t think it made much sense to miss out on a hometown tournament at my favorite place to play, Mox Mania.  We ended up with an even 50 people, and had 6 excellent rounds of swiss before a cut to top 8.

I was waffling back and forth between various builds of Burn that I had been testing, and the crucial choice essentially came down to the following cards:

treasurecruisetreasurecruisetreasurecruisetreasurecruisesteamventsshardvolley

VS:

lightninghelixlightninghelixlightninghelixlightninghelixKorFirewalkerKorFirewalkerKorFirewalkerKorFirewalker

Treasure Cruise is certainly powerful, and if you have an idle turn to cast it you are generally going to win the game.  The problem is, Burn is trying to kill very quickly, usually by turn 4 or 5, and taking that simple act of casting Treasure Cruise is often the difference between winning and losing.  That said, the card is definitely busted and a whole lot easier to cast in UR Delver, so there are many circumstances where it’s just the best thing you can possibly be doing in Modern.

Lightning Helix isn’t a great card for burn, but it’s a solid mirror match card or against other Aggro decks.  Running it maindeck over Treasure Cruise means you have room in the sideboard for more stuff (generally) since a lot of times Helix will be your sideboard card when you’re running Cruise in the main.  Kor Firewalker in particular was enticing after watching Caleb Durward’s videos from Channel Fireball and seeing results on Magic Online.  I know I personally can’t see many games where a Burn deck beats Kor Firewalker, and even Delver is situationally dead to it outside of a few lines of play (Vapor Snag, life totals, etc).  I tried Caleb’s “RW Solution” deck, but it was way to oriented towards beating Burn and Delver and was absolutely terrible in a lot of other matchups.  Still, this experience helped me in leaning my build towards something involving his suite of metagame-based cards.

I sleeved up Treasure Cruise, arrived on site, and took a look around.  About a dozen or so people were there, and all of them were playing Delver, Affinity, Burn, or Twin.  That made it easy for me, despite how powerful Cruise can be in a mirror match when it goes for a while.  I quickly unsleeved and switched to the Cruise-less build.  A friend of mine Paul was sitting talking with me, and him and I had been working on Burn the previous few nights, so we looked everything over and both rolled with basically the same 75 cards give or take 1-2 cards based on availability.  I sadly finished 3-3, with most of my losses being incredibly close, often involving my opponent being at 1 life due to a play mistake or just drawing lands instead of the one burn spell needed, but my friend Paul was able to make top 8 after going 4-1 and drawing in.  He played against Zoo in the top 8 and lost, but game 1 was close where he just needed 1 more burn spell for the win and game 2 he had a terrible keep which flooded out completely.  I think we both learned some lessons that day, but overall were both very happy with the deck.  It flowed nicely, and despite wanting a few more one mana burn spells with all the Spell Snares running around, it’s a great one to go forward with.

I’m going to share the updated list, as I played in a win-a-box tournament today with it and overall believe the changes are for the best:

Burn by Red Deck Winning 11/23/2014

4 Goblin Guide
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Rift Bolt
4 Lava Spike
4 Lightning Helix
4 Boros Charm
4 Searing Blaze
4 Skullcrack

4 Mountain
2 Stomping Ground
4 Sacred Foundry
2 Arid Mesa
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire

Sideboard
4 Kor Firewalker
4 Destructive Revelry
4 Volcanic Fallout
3 Combust

The fetches are all interchangeable, as long as they’re Red, so feel free to use whatever you have.  This list is clearly oriented to attack mirror matches and Delver, but it’s also just about as fast as the old build I played against the rest of the field.  The Bump In The Night version is extremely vulnerable in the previously mentioned matchups, so I don’t think it’s too viable at this point.  Granted, you have three colors here, but having the full playset of Helix, Blaze, and Crack goes a long way towards winning matchups of attrition.

And if there’s one thing that’s really important, it’s that Destructive Revelry is an allstar.

That card has been fantastic in this list, and it gives you outs to so many different decks in Modern that the ol’ Smash to Smithereens does not.  Having enchantment hate in what is essentially a Mono Red deck is unbelievable, and it often lets you just blow your opponent out because they don’t expect it either.  From destroying Leyline of Sanctitys to Courser of Kruphix’s to Splinter Twins to Shrieking Afflictions, it serves a great many purposes and provides unparalleled solutions.  It’s also just nice as a four-of against Affinity, which was a difficult matchup regardless of the kind of Burn you were playing.

The biggest changes from what I played at the IQ and the current list are the Volcanic Fallouts and Combusts.  I played a combination of Fallouts, Electrickery, and Sudden Shock at the IQ along with cutting 1 Combust for a Spellskite.  Those other cards aren’t bad, but Fallout is great against Delver and Twin is a tough matchup at times that I wanted the best answer for which is usually Combust.  Spellskite is good against Twin too, but it doesn’t prevent them from killing you in other ways and it can be countered.  Furthermore, Combust does double-duty against UWR, killing Collonades, Baneslayers, and Restoration Angels.  When I played today, Fallout happened to be good against Merfolk too, and it’s still a relevant card vs Affinity and most low-end Aggro matchups, as well as being able to kill Geist of Saint Traft.

Sideboarding:

Burn:

Play:  +4 Kor Firewalker, – 4 Skullcrack (Boros Charm if they have Helix)
Draw:  +4 Kor Firewalker, -4 Eidolon of the Great Revel (Skullcrack if you would prefer playing with Eidolon)

Delver:

Play:  +4 Kor Firewalker, +4 Volcanic Fallout, – 4 Skullcrack, -4 Goblin Guide
Draw:  +4 Kor Firewalker, +4 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Eidolon of the Great Revel (debatable here), -4 Goblin Guide

Zoo:  +2/3/4 Destructive Revelry, – 2/3/4 Goblin Guide (for Batterskull or other hate cards they might have if they have)

Affinity:  +4 Destructive Revelry, +4 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide, -4 Monastery Swiftspear

Twin:  +3 Combust, +4 Destructive Revelry, -4 Searing Blaze (UR Twin), – 2 Rift Bolt, -1 Rift Bolt/Mountain (play/draw).  If RUG, keep in Blazes and bring in less Combust/Revelry

UWR:  +4 Volcanic Fallout, +3 Combust, -4 Searing Blaze, -2/3 Monastery Swiftspear / 1 Mountain (play/draw)

Storm:  +4 Volcanic Fallout -4 Searing Blaze (remove some number of Skullcracks for Revelrys if they have Pyromancer’s Ascension)

Jund/BG Rock:  +4 Destructive Revelry, – 4 Monastery Swiftspear (Only if they have Courser or you believe they’ll have Batterskull type cards post-board)

Blue Moon:  +4 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Searing Blaze

Infect:  +4 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Skullcrack

Pod:  +4 Volcanic Fallout, -4 Goblin Guide

Boggles:  +4 Volcanic Fallout, +4 Destructive Revelry, -4 Searing Blaze, -4 Goblin Guide

Groyo’s Vengeance:  +Firewalker or Fallout for Searing Blazes

Scapeshift:  -4 Searing Blaze, +4 Destructive Revelry (if they have Courser of Kruphix.  If not, then feel free to leave as is so that Blaze can hit Obstinate Baloth or Sakura-Tribe Elder (you will still get player damage if they sac in response)

Legacy

I’ve been playing some Legacy recently, and my list is pretty similar to Patrick Sullivan’s current one if you’ve been reading his StarCityGames articles.  Legacy is a different animal and I don’t think I’ve fully mastered the art of Burn there (nor do I think it’s a great choice at times), but here is what I have been using:

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

1 Sulfuric Vortex
4 Fireblast
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Price of Progress
4 Searing Blaze
4 Chain Lightning
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt

Sideboard
3 Ashen Rider
4 Skullcrack
1 Searing Blood
2 Smash to Smithereens
3 Sulfuric Vortex
1 Chaos Warp
1 Volcanic Fallout

My local meta has one of the better Miracles players out there as I’ve mentioned in the past, so having the extra Vortex and Chaos Warp is mostly for that reason.  Feel free to make those Searing Bloods or more Fallouts if this is not how your Meta is.  I don’t have a sideboard plan laid out for Legacy, but it’s a little more straight forward than Modern.  Skullcrack IMO is stronger in a lot of matchups than Flame Rift, so that’s the big deviation from Sullivan’s list, but Flame Rift does have value in the unfair matchups or against Leyline of Sanctity.

Treasure Cruise is obviously still an issue and an eyesore in the format, but I think those bannings are coming sooner rather than later.  It’s a hot topic, and everyone has their reasonings, but this is my two cents for what it’s worth.  It’s probably sticking around in Legacy, but I can’t see a Modern ban not happening.

As always, thank you for reading.

Keep tapping those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

The Impact Of Khans

cratersclawswallpaper

The Impact Of Khans

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

Standard

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

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

Maindeck

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

4 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maindeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mono Red Aggro – John Galli, Test Block

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

1 Hall of Triumph

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

19 Mountain

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

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

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

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

vistaview

Granddad Bluffs, Lacrosse, WI

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

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

Maindeck

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

3 Sorin, Solemn Visitor
1 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

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

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

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

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

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

benihana

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

RW Midrange – John Galli, SCG Minneapolis

Maindeck

3 Seeker of the Way
4 Ashcloud Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern and Legacy

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

treasurecruise

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

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

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

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

Maindeck

4 Snapcaster Mage
2 Vendilion Clique

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

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

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

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

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

Khans Limited

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

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

mer-eknightbladeabzanfalconeralabasterkirin

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

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

murderouscutburnawaysavagepunchkillshotforceaway

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

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

necropolisfiend

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

sultaiflayer

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

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

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

Until next time,

Keep Tapping Those Mountains,

– Red Deck Winning

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

monasteryswiftspearwallpaper

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

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

benschoenbrun

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the list that I eventually settled on:

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

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

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

20 Mountain

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

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

Round 1: Mark Webb with RW Aggro:

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

1-0.

Round 2: Taylor Rowe with Naya Monsters:

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

2-0.

Round 3: Daniel Antony with Mono Green Devotion:

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

3-0.

Round 4: Ross Merriam with G/B Devotion:

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

3-1.

Round 5: Micah Maben with Mono Black Aggro:

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

4-1.

Round 6: Joseph Vazquez with Junk Midrange:

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

5-1.

Round 7: Charlie Rhinehart with BW Roc Midrange:

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

6-1.

Round 8: David Beaudrie with Junk Midrange:

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

7-1.

Round 9: David Fulk with R/W Control:

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

7-2.

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

Round 10: David Gross with Naya Midrange:

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

8-2. 9th Place.

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

– Ben Schoenbrun

– Red Deck Winning