Assassins Eat The World

Brian talks about how he got from his G/B Aggro deck to his current B/G Midrange list and tells you why you should give it a shot at your next Standard tournament.

As I mentioned in my article last week , I was particularly disappointed that I was unable to make it to Grand Prix Dallas-Fort Worth because I’d been working on a new deck that I was really happy with. If you watched the coverage of the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas or tuned into my video earlier this week, you might have gotten a peek at just what that deck was.

I started building the deck because I was growing disillusioned with my G/B Aggro deck. Specifically, I had gotten frustrated after Grand Prix Albuquerque by the deck’s matchup against black decks. Before the list that Owen Turtenwald played in Albuquerque became the standard, I was doing very well against Mono-Black Devotion, but after that tournament my win rate dropped drastically. It’s very hard to fight through Lifebane Zombie and Dark Betrayal with a Dreg Mangler deck.

More broadly, I was unhappy with the deck from a structural perspective. The mana just wasn’t good enough. Aggressive decks have more demands on their mana than control decks do, and the mana in the current Standard isn’t particularly good. Lands that enter the battlefield tapped are hard to play in a deck that relies on curving out to apply pressure. Elvish Mystic is a powerful card, but its impact is much lower when you can’t rely on it to accelerate into a three-drop on the second turn. Any draw with a Guildgate just starts out behind, and you can’t really afford to play from behind when your deck is full of cheap creatures.

There were certainly elements of the G/B Aggro deck that I liked. I was a big fan of the removal and disruption package. Abrupt Decay was excellent, offering an incredibly flexible removal spell that could deal with major players in the format like Nightveil Specter, Underworld Connections, and Detention Sphere. It was rarely a dead card and was frequently one of the best options available. Similarly, Thoughtseize and Hero’s Downfall were excellent, though sometimes difficult to use effectively due to their mana costs.

The card that surprised me the most was Polukranos. Even in a deck that wasn’t built to maximize it in any way the World Eater lived up to his name. Any deck based on small creatures could be absolutely decimated by a single Polukranos activation. In particular, the W/R Aggro deck that became popular after Ben Lundquist’s win at the Standard Open in Los Angeles was incredibly vulnerable to the card. Master of Waves was also a prime World Eater target since even the smallest monstrosity activation could send countless Elemental tokens to their demise.

My goal then was to build a deck that managed to preserve what felt like the powerful elements of the G/B Aggro deck while attempting to shore up the weaknesses. I wanted to be able to maximize the effectiveness of the flexible removal and disruption suite, which I planned to use to support a creature base headlined by Polukranos. Simple enough.

I wasn’t looking to tweak numbers or just try different cards—I was looking to make complete structural changes to the strategy. When a lot of people saw me playing Golgari over the past few weeks, they asked me what I’d changed in my list, and I told them that it was a totally different deck. Sure, the deck I ended up with shares some cards with what I was playing before, but I completely reevaluated the core strategy. I moved away from the aggressive direction of the previous deck and embraced the truly midrange.

Here is where I ended up:

Once I decided to move away from the aggressive direction the first card I wanted to try was Sylvan Caryatid, and I quickly learned that my instincts were correct. Caryatid does a ton of work in this deck. Not only does it provide much-needed mana acceleration, but it does so in a form that is drastically less vulnerable than a card like Elvish Mystic.

When you’ve played as many mana creatures in your life as I have, one of the things you learn to fear the most is when they get killed. Hexproof on Sylvan Caryatid means that it pretty much only dies to Devour Flesh or a sweeper like Supreme Verdict. While losing your mana creatures to sweeper effects is always annoying, it’s much less painful than having your dorks Shocked and dying to a swarm of little red men with the spells you were looking to accelerate into stuck in your hand. The resilience of Caryatid is incredible in those kinds of matchups because you can actually rely on it staying on the board, making your more expensive spells more consistently able to take over the game.

Sylvan Caryatid also has a hidden extra ability: three toughness. I can’t count how much damage Caryatid has saved me by blocking Rakdos Cacklers, Soldier of the Pantheons, Mutavaults, and the like. There is a lot to be said for the fact that Caryatid is an actual interactive card against a significant number of decks. While drawing three Elvish Mystics just means you’re mana flooded, drawing three Caryatids can keep you alive long enough to draw out of that flood and into a high-impact card that can take over the game like Polukranos.

Speaking of mana flood, this deck is far better suited to dealing with it than the more aggressive build. The two decks only play a marginally different amount of actual mana sources—25 lands and four Caryatids here compared to 24 and four Mystics in the aggro deck. Because of Caryatid’s color fixing and this deck’s lower reliance on early plays with difficult mana costs like Lotleth Troll, this build can support multiple copies of Mutavault, a card that the aggressive version would have desperately loved to play. While neither deck has access to scry lands until Born of the Gods hits the shelves, being able to squeeze what value you can out of your mana sources is worth a lot, and between Caryatid and Mutavault the midrange version is simply much better set up to do so.

This deck is also much better set up to utilize the scrying machine that is Reaper of the Wilds. Reaper was a card I was really hot on for a while in the aggressive deck and grew increasingly less enamored with over time. I actually didn’t even include it in my initial sketch of this deck, instead opting for Desecration Demon in an attempt to match up better against Lifebane Zombie. I found that I was having trouble in longer attrition-based games, switched back to Reaper, and was immediately very impressed.

Playing with more powerful individual cards makes scrying much more effective since you have higher-impact cards you are able to dig to find. Additionally, a deck with higher-impact cards is less reliant on applying early pressure to close out the game quickly. That means you can afford to wait for six mana to play your Reaper with hexproof mana up more often, something which was often difficult to do in the more aggressive deck.

This is also a much better Scavenging Ooze deck. Scavenging Ooze is a decidedly midrange card. It can be an early creature to apply pressure or block an early assault, but it grows more powerful as the game progresses and it has more fuel in graveyards to feed upon. This is a deck that wants to use disruption and removal to get to the mid and late game against opposing creature decks, which means Scavenging Ooze is able to get big much more often.

This is even a better Golgari Charm deck. One of my favorite sideboard cards in the G/B Aggro deck was the Charm because of its incredible flexibility. Charm is a stone-cold killer against control, with all three modes having valuable and potentially game-winning uses. You can regenerate your creatures from Supreme Verdict, destroy a Detention Sphere, or wipe the board clear of 1/1 tokens from Elspeth to set up for an attack. The latter mode is also very effective against decks with a lot of one-toughness creatures, including Mono0Blue Devotion and its Master of Waves.

The problem with that mode in the more aggressive deck was the fact that you had a number of small creatures yourself like Elvish Mystic and Lotleth Troll. You could easily end up with draws that just didn’t work out and required you to play behind if you wanted to actually use the -1/-1 mode of Charm at some point. Not so in this deck. In fact, it’s even better because you can force your opponent to commit more heavily to the board thanks to Sylvan Caryatid serving to blunt their offense.

The card that really stands out to most people in this deck though is Vraska. I played Vraska as a one-of in the sideboard of the G/B Aggro deck for a while but eventually moved away from it because I wasn’t looking to play the long and grindy kinds of games that her abilities promote. Quite to the contrary, that is exactly the kind of game this deck is looking to play.

I originally had one copy of Vraska, went to up two, and then finally to three when it was just better than the other options I tinkered with like Deadbridge Chant and Primeval Bounty. While those enchantments can be powerful, they cost more mana than Vraska and have no immediate impact on the game when you cast them. The current Standard format is very much based on board presence, what with the devotion mechanic and all. It’s very difficult to get away with playing expensive cards that don’t have immediate board impact unless they’re something outrageous like Sphinx’s Revelation.

Vraska does a ton of work in this deck. Not only does she serve as an all-purpose removal spell against whatever it may be that ails you—I’ve killed everything from Elspeth and Detention Sphere to Chained to the Rock and Assemble the Legion—but she can also win the game. You haven’t lived until you’ve assassinated someone with Vraska tokens—especially someone who was feeling so confident they wouldn’t die to Assassins with a Supreme Verdict in their hand only to find that you had a Golgari Charm waiting for them.

A big part of what I was looking for in my expensive finisher was the ability to dodge the sideboard cards I could anticipate people bringing in against me, such as Lifebane Zombie and Dark Betrayal, and Vraska manages to do both while still threatening to win the game quickly and with little other help.

While my results over the weekend in Vegas weren’t spectacular with the deck—I went 3-1 in the Invitational before missing day 2 thanks to a poor showing in Legacy and only went 2-2 before dropping in the Standard Open—I still feel it’s an excellent choice. One thing that is important to recognize about Magic is that you can’t judge a deck’s merits or flaws based on a small sample of results like a single event.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that a 5-3 result over the weekend is a point in favor of playing the deck, but that’s the same finish that Sam Black had with Mono-Blue Devotion in the Invitational and Owen Turtenwald went 1-3 with U/W Control. Does that mean those are bad decks? Of course not. They’re just the results of a single player in a single tournament. But when it comes to the results of new or less commonly played decks, some players are quick to be dismissive and blame a poor record on the deck because it’s an easy excuse.

I’d be happy to play this deck again in a Standard event tomorrow. You have very strong matchups against all of the common creature-based decks in the field, particularly Mono-Blue Devotion and white-based aggro. Winning against control requires careful management of your threats but is not nearly as difficult as I first thought it might be—I went 3-2 over the weekend against various flavors of U/W Control, and both of my losses involved one game in which I stalled on two lands with Read the Bones in my hand for multiple turns. My wins included beating Owen Turtenwald playing U/W, so it’s not as if I was simply beating weak competition either.

The matchup I look forward to playing the least is against Mono-Black Devotion. Not because it’s necessarily more difficult than the others, but because of how the games play out. I find that I win almost every game in which Pack Rat doesn’t get out of control because my deck’s answers line up so well against their threats. Abrupt Decay and Vraska give you answers to Underworld Connections and Nightveil Specter, without which their deck doesn’t do very much—unless they have Pack Rat.

I briefly played Pithing Needle in my sideboard just to stop Pack Rat but ultimately decided to just add Rats of my own since they have applications in other matchups. I’m not certain what plan is the best. It’s possible that I should just be playing Pack Rats of my own in my maindeck, but I’ve been so happy with the core of the deck that I haven’t explored that option just yet.

In any case, I’m going to be taking some time off from testing Standard myself in the next month or so since my next event in the format won’t be until Grand Prix Vancouver in late January. In the meantime, I suggest you try taking this deck out for a spin. It’s powerful, lots of fun, and lets you assassinate your opponents. What’s better than that?