Constructed Ascension: No Angels Needed Here
By mikemartin_lfs on November 20th, 2009 · Filed in Standard (Type 2) · Comments not available just now
No Angels Needed Here on Jwar Isle
Welcome to the first article in my series, Constructed Ascension. Before I begin, I'd like quote a very wise man I once knew:
"When life gives you lemons, cascade into them with Bloodbraid Elf and win."
Honestly, that about sums it up for Standard right about now, though the recent results from the Nashville Star City Games 5K indicate that Eldrazi Elves have something to say about that, but we'll have to see. (Lemons, in this case, would be any Standard tournament you so happen to find yourself in; at that point, the solution seems to be cascading with Bloodbraid for the win, to explain my sub-par analogy). Finding a deck that stands up well to Jund while maintaining a good percentage against the rest of the field is quite a challenge. I must say, I'm ready for a good challenge.
To put this in perspective, I've run Jund since early last season during Lorwyn/Shards standard. I even ran it at the Philadelphia and Nashville Star City Games Standard 5Ks, losing in the ninth round to finish 6-3 and missing top 16 in Philly and losing in round 8 to go 5-3 with an almost guaranteed top 16 if I didn't scrub out in Nashville. So when I watched the top eight of that event and saw five of the top eight decks cascading from Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning, I knew there was a problem that needed to be solved. Last season, I used Jund as a solution to Faeries and Five Color Control; now, I'd have to play the spoiler to Jund's reign at the top.
What beats Jund? The question nagged at me starting on the drive home from Philadelphia to Virginia. Actually, my analytical mind started working on this issue during the first round of the top eight. My first thought: Rhox War Monk. The creature quickly outclasses everything short of a Putrid Leech, and with the right deck, that wouldn't be an issue. I also knew that a Wall of Denial was amazing against Jund, since I'd been beaten by that card a couple of times last season. Bant was my first thought but was quickly discarded after not winning a game out of the first six or seven I tested against Jund. Could I have built the deck to have a slightly better matchup? Sure. However, I was out for blood; I wanted a deck that had an unfair matchup with Jund. I wanted something that was on the level of last season's Baneslayer Control as an auto-win matchup.
Coming Up With a Solution
Alas, I quickly discovered that this wouldn't be the case with any of the decks I brewed up in my head. A 4 Color Cascade Control list running Naya/Jund Colors had roughly a 45-55 matchup pre-board versus Jund, and Boros Bushwacker simply lacked the consistency to match up with Jund's card advantage. Obviously Vampires has a notoriously bad matchup with Jund already, so I didn't explore that option (though something with three to four maindeck Mind Sludges may be workable, as that card is simply a blowout). I kept going back to control decks, and Esper and Grixis seemed to be the two best options. Esper gives the options of Path to Exile/Celestial Purge, Baneslayer Angel, Day of Judgement, Elspeth, Knight Errant, et al. Grixis gave Cruel Ultimatum (plus some other goodies, but Cruel alone made me want to play Grixis). I hated being on the opposite end of a Cruel and, vice versa, I loved casting the card. However, I didn't like the lack of consistent board sweepers (Day of Judgement) or a finisher that could swing the game and life totals back in your favor (obviously Baneslayer Angel). About that time, Gavin Verhey's Sphinx Control list started popping out at me. I'd read the list before, but I was more focused on playing Jund at the time and dismissed the list. However, one card stood out to me and it alone has changed my way of thinking on control in the new standard:
I realized that, by having this card as my finisher, I have no need for white at all in my deck. I could streamline my list (similar to how Gavin streamlined his) and only run a couple of Sphinxes as my finishers. While I would get no Day of Judgment or Path to Exile, red's board sweepers plus Lightning Bolt, Terminate, and Agony Warp should hold down the early-game fort.
Building a Solution
I immediately set out writing out a list while still at work that day. I realized rather quickly that the ability to play and stick your finisher that protects itself has a ripple effect throughout the rest of the card choices in the 75. No longer do you need to run a full four-of to make sure you get a finisher on the board. With adequate card draw, I reasoned that two Jwar Isle inhabitants should be sufficient to get the point across. Additionally, you don't need to run countermagic to back up your finisher; Hindering Light, while a good card (think Cruel Ultimatum), wouldn't be needed, especially seeing as I didn't want to run white. This allows for more board control spells, and with the current format, I believe Grixis offers the best early removal suite (yes, even over Esper and white's removal suite).
In other words: we don't need no stinkin' Baneslayer Angel. In fact, the card seemed to be more of a liability than a positive aspect of a control deck. You had to plan around keeping it on the board, which meant additional deck slots for the card. I will admit, not having to run four finishers with ways to protect them allows for a lot more selection and variety among my card choices. With all of the current aggro decks running around, you're going to need quick answers to fast threats. Boros Bushwacker is another matchup that comes to mind here. The ability to run Bolt, Warp, Terminate, and sweepers like Pyroclasm and Volcanic Fallout in the same deck while not taking away from you card draw or finishing spells allows for a much better early game. Let's be honest here: we're all aware that the plan in a Grixis deck is
1. Stall until you can...
2. Cast a Cruel Ultimatum and...
3. Profit. Win.
The plan from last season still seemed to be a viable option, as Cruel Ultimatum is just as backbreaking (if not more so with the absence of Wilt-Leaf Liege in the format) as it has ever been. So that was my plan: to survive, Cruel, win. My original list:
Before I continue, I want to point out that I was aware that Nicol Bolas is a bit slow and Obelisk only had three sources of white mana to use the most relevant ability, but in the initial phases of a deck idea, I like to include some unconventional choices in order to see how they hold up in the metagame. Additionally, I am a firm believer in only having three Cruel Ultimatums in a deck. Even on the outside chance you hit every land drop leading up to turn seven, if you have a Cruel in your opening grip (which is normally why you play four of a card, to see it early and often) you've effectively mulled to six. With three, I can lower the chance of that happening while maintaining a sizeable chance of having a Cruel in hand when I hit that all-important seventh land.
I'm seeing far too many lists that are capable of running Agony Warp and not doing so. I have yet to see the logic in this for the current meta. With small aggro and Jund decks running rampant, Agony Warp seems like a godsend. While you don't employ the creatures to potentially make it a two-for-one, the card effectively reads "Destroy target creature, gain three life". Against an aggro deck, I'll take that any day, since all I'm trying to do is stabilize before their early threats bring me dangerously close to death (read: within burn range).
Not My Final Answer Yet, Regis... (Refining the 75)
Doing what it does best: anAs you can see, my original list focused around the Jund matchup, with Double Negatives and Swerves in the main deck. Double Negative is better than Cancel currently, and Swerve is great for Blightning, Identity Crisis, Mind Sludge, etc. (keep in mind, Cruel Ultimatum says "target opponent", meaning you can't Swerve it back to them). With four Lightning Bolts, three Agony Warps, and three Terminates to hold the early game, Volcanic Fallouts to hold aggro in check, and Earthquake as a "catch all," I assumed the deck could handle any early onslaught until Jace's card advantage (combined with Cruel/Sphinx of Lost Truths, the other Sphinx). However, after some initial testing against Jund, I realized my removal suite just wasn't "getting there." Mostly, the disappointing culprit was Volcanic Fallout. Unlike last season, this card just doesn't do enough. Too many creatures outclass its two damage output. The games would make it to the mid-to-late stage, I would be packing a Fallout with a Thrinax and Leech on the board taking five a turn en route to my death. Not to mention post-board Great Sable Stags. I remembered the "tech" from the Conley Woods Special Jund Mannequin deck last season, Caldera Hellion. While I don't have Firespout to fend off attackers, Caldera Hellion does a passable impression of the hybrid sweeper.
expensive Firespout impersonation.
After switching out the Fallouts for Hellions, my Jund matchup improved dramatically. I even declared it a 55-45 matchup to my friend via text, saying that it could potentially become a 60-40 match with some additional tweaks. However, I felt the need to also test extensively against the Boros Bushwacker list (among others; Boros and Jund were my top two priorities in testing), as I'm guessing it's also going to be a major player in the upcoming months. I quickly realized that, on the play, I barely have a chance to win unless Boros stumbled. Even less of a chance on the draw, if I had any chance at all. The deck is just blazingly fast at times. I realized the need for more sweepers before turn five. I considered more Earthquakes, but settled on removing Nicol Bolas, Banefire, and Chandra Nalaar for three Pyroclasms. While Fallout was inadequate as my only sweeper, having Pyroclasms for early sweeps with Caldera Hellion backup seemed like a decent plan. Unfortunately, while the sweepers worked well enough against Boros, making it a winnable matchup (though still not favorable, more like 40-60 pre-board), they were still a dead card against Jund normally in addition to most everything, so the Pyroclasms were removed for the last Agony Warp, Terminate, and another Earthquake.
All that has left me at this list:
Which brings me back to my original point. The deck contains a lot of "point click" removal backed by five board sweepers in the main deck. The Philly 5K results demonstrated that a control deck will have to plan heavily for aggro in order to stand a chance currently. The Negate slots in the sideboard are concessions to the possibility of seeing a control deck. The ability to keep threats off the board and draw cards off of Jace in the early game sets the pilot up for late game Cruel Ultimatums or Sphinx of the Lost Truths with kicker. Additionally, Wretched Banquet might become an option if you feel that the current list of removal isn't working out. With all of that, you still maintain the possibility of dropping a turn six Jwar Isle monstrosity, to which aggro decks will have no answers. With no need to protect your 5/5 flyer, you can be confident in that play knowing it will effectively "remove" an attacker the next turn, if the opposing team attacks at all. Keep in mind that you'll want to bring in the Essence Scatters specifically against Jund, as its the best "removal" for Thrinax and Broodmate (also a Leech while on the play as well). I'm not saying I've come close to achieving an "auto-win" matchup here, but I believe that, if played correctly, this deck has at least a slight advantage against Jund.
Additional Points on Control in the Current Meta
As I mentioned earlier, I also strongly considered Esper Control. I still view this as a viable option that needs to be further explored, and I plan to do so. I've also considered the option of dropping some consistency for the four color list that resembles the Five Color Control lists from last season. This inevitably brings me back to an idea that I actually wrote on the back of an envelope while driving back from the Charlotte SCG 5K at the end of last season (yes, I wrote the list down while driving. I didn't want to forget the idea!). It's eerily similar to Calosso Fuentes' R/U/W Control list from the Philly 5K Top 16. Here's my list, for reference:
The list, admittedly, is raw. It was conjured up before the entire Zendikar spoiler was even completed. I ran only a few games with it and, while I liked the list, I ended up deciding on Jund for Philly due to my experience with and knowledge of the deck. Therefore, I began testing with my Jund list, setting the R/U/W Ascension Control list aside. Since Calosso is someone who I occasionally draft with and generally know on an acquaintance level, I congratulated him on his round nine win (we were both vying for top 16, he obviously got there and I didn't) and told him about how I came up with a similar list. His success with the deck (he's admittedly a better player than I am) only encouraged me to further explore other deck ideas I'd set aside prior to the 5K in Philly. Thus, the Grixis deck that you all have had the (I'm assuming) pleasure of reading about. I'll likely re-examine my R/U/W list, as I've gotten plenty of advice on it when I was posing it to other players (such as fewer Walls of Reverence/Baneslayer, as they'll likely just be removal vacuums). Obviously, it contains the tools to beat Jund as you can board Swerves, Double Negatives, and even Celestial Purge against them. This may be the route to go on Control, and I'll examine this list compared to the Grixis build I've outlined. More to come in a later article.
Lastly, for those of you who live by the saying "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and decide to play Jund, remember, you have to prepare for the mirror. As I stated earlier, I played in the Philly 5K with an "Unconventional Jund" build, a deck that I tested against aggro to ensure that I had the upper hand in a field I knew would be littered with the archetype. Here's my list, for starters:
Before I go on, I'll answer your obvious questions by stating that 1) I woke up late and, in my rush to get out the door, left my Great Sable Stags in the backseat of my car in Virginia; and 2) yes, that Fallout should be a Jund Charm, only that was also in my backseat (and the TO was out of them, which shows the popularity of the deck that day.)
Stopping aggro, one bite at a time.River Boa is nuts against aggro, taking over my "other" three-drop slot in the main over the Stags (even if I had them, they would have been in the board over the Needles). Yes, they're a three-drop, don't fool yourself. Jund can't profitably attack against it, and only Terminate and Path offer reliable solutions to the snake problem (Gatekeeper of Malakir obviously answers it as well, just not as reliably). The Bloodwitches were concessions to the amount of Baneslayers I was expecting to see; unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I only saw two rounds with the severely-undercosted seraph. I'd still play them now due to my suspicions that more decks sporting the Baneslayer will pop up due to all of the aggro decks. The Ob Nixilis was a last minute addition over the fourth Boa that I was originally testing; multiple Boas became an issue when trying to keep them all alive, and having four almost always ensured getting more than one out. Additionally, after playing Jund for most of last year and getting numerous control decks to low single-digit life totals only to watch them recover while I drew into lands, I wanted a way to finish out the game. Ob Nixilis was fine when I drew it and had five lands, but in all honesty, I wouldn't play it again.
I went to Nashville with the intentions on running the Grixis build listed above. The problem was once again card availability, namely leaving a massive amount of cards behind inexplicably. Since I was missing half of the deck, and had no interest in buying an entire Grixis build, I bit the bullet and ran Jund out there. My logic in doing this was that even though everyone and their mom would be running 15 sideboard cards to shore up their Jund matchup, the Jund hate only served to bring Jund back down to "fair" levels but didn't actually give an opposing deck an advantage. Celestial Purge my Sprouting Thrinax? It's the same as Terminating my Bloodbraid, one-for-one. Double Negative my Bloodbraid-into-Blightning? It's the same as Negating my Cruel Ultimatum. The point is, I realized that even with the hate for Jund, as long as I played tight, winning was definitely not out of the question. Unfortunately, round three was lost to, seriously, 15-20 draw steps without hitting a fourth land against Boros (I kept Swamp, Mountain, Dragonskull Summit against Boros with Terminate, Bolt, and Pyroclasm in hand; never saw green with three Bloodbraid Elves) and round five was lost when I ripped a Broodmate with my opponent at six only to have him rip a Baneslayer Angel with me at four. Round eight, I got paired up against Boros, only to get crushed game one on the draw (Boros God draws are awesome.) and to get land flooded game two. Disappointing tournament to say the least (though not as disappointing as losing late to miss the top eight the next day at a sealed PTQ with double Vampire Lacerator, double Trusty Machete, triple Blood Seeker in deck).
Anywho, enough with the crappy tournament reports from this past weekend, here's the Jund list I ran with in Nashville (of which I got a judge called on me due to the fact that my opponent, also running Jund, simply could not believe that I could possibly be running Jund Charm in the main deck):
With more Jund, Boros, and Vampires expected than decks running Baneslayer, I'd move the Bloodwitches to the board. Jund Charm would remain main decked due to its sweeper potential plus the potential for a combat trick with the two +1/+1 counters. Stealing a trick from the Philly 5K top eight, I'd include two Garruks, as their card advantage is too good to pass up. In fact, if not for a bad decision to keep in round nine, you would have been seeing my irregular deck choices among all of the analysis for the top 16 decklists. For those of you wondering, I ran against five decks running Bloodbraid Elf in Philly. In those rounds, I went 4-1, losing in the third round to the mirror in which he got multiple Stags in two games, which can be incredibly devastating to a player who isn't smart enough to remember his own. (In Nashville, somehow I only saw one mirror match, which I also won).
Either way you decide to go, control is going to be a difficult archetype to pull off currently. This is mostly due to the nature of the format, or rather, lack of a defined format overall. While the Philly 5K results showed some of the decks you can expect to see, you can also be assured of at least a couple of rounds against decks designed to beat these aggro decks. The problem with trying to run control is that you're trying to answer a problem that isn't clearly defined at the moment. However, whichever deck you decide to run, I'd like to wish you good luck at States coming up or FNMs, for those of you that run them.
By mikemartin_lfs on November 20th, 2009 · Filed in Standard (Type 2) · Comments not available just now