Behind The Curtain – Old Friends And Old Enemies

Valeriy Shunkov shares his tech from across the ocean, namely that of the latest U/B Control lists, Valakut, RUG Twin/Pod, and Shape Anew.

Hello! The M12 release promises us a very interesting Standard format for the upcoming months. We have a bunch of major tournaments to look forward to,
including Nationals and StarCityGames.com Opens.

In this article, I’ll take a look at the metagame we can expect and show you some decks both well-known and rogue, proposed by Russian MTGO
grinders. And, of course, I’ll speak about the place my own pet deck, Valakut, occupies within the brave new metagame.

So, Valakut… Right after the bannings were announced, everyone made sure to pronounce it the new boogeyman of the format, but now (reality
check!) it is evident that the deck faces a bunch of real problems to solve—with resurrection of U/B Control being the worst one.

Judging from the way the post-ban Standard metagame presents itself on MTGO, it is very diverse and very healthy: I’ve counted at least six
popular and viable decks (U/B Control, U/W Control, Valakut, Mono Red, U/R Splinter Twin, and Vampires) alongside a bunch of interesting and quite
effective rogue decks. I, too, was afraid that Valakut would totally dominate Standard after Caw-Blade’s demise, but it looks like control decks
are not dead at all (they just smell like it), and they’re doing a fine job of keeping Primeval Titan in check. There are a lot of problems to
solve, but there are also some good cards coming from M12 to help us to do so.

The two I want to focus today are Rampant Growth and Solemn Simulacrum. The first one is an easy auto-four-of. That said, Rampant Growth demands to
significantly change the existing decklists and even revisit our approach to building and playing Valakut. First, I recommend stopping playing creature
acceleration, as well as Green Sun’s Zenith as an acceleration spell. Why? Honestly, acceleration that doesn’t give us additional lands is
not really good in Valakut. Everybody plays Overgrown Battlement simply because turn-2 acceleration is crucial in setting up turn 4 Primeval Titan. For
that, at least twelve two-mana acceleration spells are needed, so we have no real choice but to play some bad creature acceleration (like Walls) in
addition to staples like Explore and Khalni Heart Expedition. Rampant Growth being reprinted allows us to drop such bad cards, also improving our
matchups against removal-heavy decks like Mono-Black Control.

I must admit, there’s a lone, but significant exception: Lotus Cobra. Make no mistake: the deck doesn’t aim to land Primeval Titan as fast
as possible; the deck aims to start shooting with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle as fast as possible. Imagine: you start with turn-2 Cobra, then play
turn-3 Explore, lay down a pair of fetchlands, and your ultrafast Titan suddenly is not that good because you only have one or two non-Forest
lands in play.

And Avenger of Zendikar with three small vegetables looks light years worse than an Avenger with seven tokens. Still, there is one very significant
matchup where landing a Titan first is the most important thing you can accomplish: the mirror. So, I recommend you stop playing Overgrown Battlement,
but there are some strong arguments for keeping Lotus Cobra around just for the mirrors (with Tumble Magnet as the other possible mirror tech). What
should we choose? Metagame will tell, and in the meanwhile let’s speak about another important reprint.

Solemn Simulacrum. One of the most exciting Magic cards ever. A perfect way to skip the five spot on the curve and to cast Grave Titan a turn earlier.
Wait, what? Yes, Grave Titan. As I see it, the deck Solemn Simulacrum will really shine in is U/B Control, while I’m not so sure it’s truly
justified to snap-add Solemn Simulacrum to each and every Valakut build around.

Why? Sure, the card itself is pretty exciting; it’s like a Bloodbraid Elf that auto-cascades into Rampant Growth (Do you remember those miserable
Valakut builds with Expedition Map we used to play prior to the release of M11 and the printing of the Titans cycle?) and trades haste for card
advantage. So, in sum, the card looks very promising. The truth is, Solemn Simulacrum doesn’t work very well with the deck’s mana base.
Valakut is forced to play Terramorphic Expanse (because we need to have Forests in our starting hand and Mountains in the late game), so the deck
typically has 8-10 enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands. When can we play them to stick a turn-4 Primeval Titan?

The first turn.

The second turn, as an additional land drop after Explore.

The third turn, if we can play any acceleration, or after a turn-2 Khalni Heart Expedition.

Let’s say we jam some Solemn Simulacrums into our Valakut instead of, for example, Cultivate. In this scenario, when do we have the right moment
to play our taplands? Solemn Simulacrum completely closes the turn-3 window, so we can’t play them on turn 3. Moreover, Solemn Simulacrum
can’t be played after turn-2 Khalni Heart Expedition, which is normally the best possible turn-2 play for Valakut. So, does he really belong in

Yes, he does. Turn-3 Solemn Simulacrum is great against any of today’s control decks—he provides acceleration; he is effectively
uncounterable (due to Summoning Trap); he brings some beats; and he can’t be killed by Go for the Throat. Even if they kill him, we’ll be
happy; they’re down a card, and we’re up a card! Finally, Solemn Simulacrum can’t be discarded by Inquisition of Kozilek, providing
some sort of reliability against control decks.

Summing it up, I want to play Solemn Simulacrum in Valakut, but to do so, the mana base should be revised (I would agree to making it slightly worse in
the late game in favor of more explosive starts), and additional turn-2 mana acceleration may be needed (which is incidentally a second solid argument
for not dropping Lotus Cobra).

Time to build a raw decklist!

There are no Lightning Bolts, no Pyroclasms—in short, not a single reactive card in the maindeck. This decision is intentional: in the first
game, I want to focus on assembling my combo. Trading resiliency for speed, I acknowledge that this list will have some serious problems beating Mono
Red pre-board, but every other matchup is relatively fine (where “relatively fine” against U/B sadly still means “not as good as I
want”). I’ve chosen to play Avenger of Zendikar over Wurmcoil Engine and Inferno Titan because I’m afraid of Act of Aggression and
pinpoint removal that deals with the Primeval Titan or Inferno Titan. In order to update the list, I’d consider adding some reactive spells
(ditching Lotus Cobras if there’s no prospect of playing a lot of mirrors) and stuffing the sideboard with additional enchantment
hate—primarily, to combat Manabarbs.

And now it’s time to speak about the enemies of the Valakut, old and new. It’s very hard to describe them all at once, so I’ve
decided to provide you something special: four decks built and successfully played by Russian MTGO grinders (and well-known players here in Russia).

The first one is, obviously, U/B Control. I think you’ve all seen the results of Chinese Nationals, but it was not the only tournament held last
weekend. Yuri Babych used U/B Control to claim his second title at Ukrainian Nationals. The old enemy of Valakut is now free from Stoneforge Mystic
pressure and packs its hate again. Tectonic Edge and Spreading Seas are threatening mana bases all over the world yet again, and Jace Beleren provides
enough advantage to eventually find every card you need, be it discard, removal, counterspells, or beat sticks.

The list is a modified deck from Brad Nelson’s previous week’s Premium article. The key point of the
deck is its creatures: a pair of Wurmcoil Engines and three Vampire Nighthawks are the worst nightmare of the aggressive decks, while discard and
Memoricide provide good game against Valakut and combo decks.

The second list is U/B Control played by Zenithh777 (Yuri Danishevskiy, top 32 GP Barcelona).

Speaking of interesting card choices, I’d mention the singleton Batterskull serving as a reusable Wurmcoil Engine and singletons of Karn
Liberated and Liliana Vess taking place of (possible) Consecrated Sphinx. You can also see that Yuri preferred a pair of Grave Titans as finishers.

For U/B Control, the most interesting cards out of M12 are Solemn Simulacrum (which had already proven himself to be good in control strategies,
especially if there are some solid six-drops waiting to be cast, whether Titans, Sphinxes or Wurms) and Jace, Memory Adept (five mana instead of three,
sure, but he draws you cards by getting bigger, not smaller). U/B Control has a strong matchup vs. Mono Red and is the main natural predator of
Valakut, so I expect U/B Control, and not Valakut, to be the deck to beat before Zendikar block rotates out.

Moving on, we see another take on blue and black, dubbed “Robomorph” by its pilot, Backstreet aka Mikhail Stroev from Khabarovsk (there is
a place in Russia that is equally far from Moscow and Los Angeles). From the moment Blightsteel Colossus was spoiled this winter, Backstreet started to
tune a Shape Anew combo deck, investing an unbelievable amount of time in it and finally bringing Robomorph to PT Paris. Now, without Jace, the Mind
Sculptor’s bounce ability, this deck is really viable.

The plan is simple: let Trinket Mage find yourself an Everflowing Chalice or a Darksteel Relic, then cheat Blightsteel Colossus onto the battlefield.
Unlike Kuldotha Forgemaster builds, this is not a control deck; this is a true dedicated combo, going as far as playing Diabolic Tutor over Jace
Beleren. The deck can be faster than other combo decks (not allowing them to combo first using Duress and Mana Leak) and can effectively deal with
aggression (note the playset of Disfigure). As far as we expect the metagame to be more controllish, it’s advisable to change some cards (maybe
play Spell Pierce over Mana Leak), but overall the deck is good enough to recommend.

Possible updates coming from M12 are… hmm, Jace, Memory Adept definitely does not belong to the deck, but Rune-Scarred Demon could (albeit
surprisingly) as an alternative win condition and/or combo enabler. Also, I want to at least consider Frost Breath as an option because removing two
blockers can be very important for the deck.

The last deck for today is R/U/G Splinter Twin/Birthing Pod proposed by EugeneB (Alexander Semkin, another well established figure at the Russian MTG
scene with numerous PTQ wins under his belt). What we have here is a dedicated R/U/G Splinter Twin combo that has replaced Jace, the Mind Sculptor for
Birthing Pod and Totem-Guide Hartebeest, trying to maximize its ability to find combo pieces on time. Unlike other R/U/G builds running around MTGO
these days, this deck doesn’t really focus on chaining creatures through Birthing Pod, and the Pod itself merely serves as a reasonable
instrument instead of being the cornerstone of the deck (just notice that Deceiver Exarchs are the only three-mana creatures here, although I
want to question the absence of Sea Gate Oracle, at least as a spicy singleton). Such a build does look better and perform better than dedicated and
clunky B/G/x Birthing Pod decks with Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and Massacre Wurm. Believe it or not, the combo is faster here.

The most interesting card in the list is Nest Invader. He fills the place of Explore while doing so much more else: attacking, blocking, dying to find
Deceiver Exarch. The thing I do NOT like about this deck is that finding Totem-Guide Hartebeest seems to be a rather tricky task. As far as I can see,
the deck really needs some value creatures with mana cost three, something like Pilgrim’s Eye or Sea Gate Oracle.

Despite this three-drop issue, I consider this deck to be a very strong contender in the current metagame, while also being more interesting than both
U/R Twin and other versions of Birthing Pod decks. Matchup-wise, it can reasonably oppose all the top guys of the format: Control (typically, control
decks do not have a good way to beat active Birthing Pod), Red decks (thanks to maindeck Obstinate Baloths and sideboarded Spellskite), and Valakut
(the Twin combo is just plain faster, and R/U/G can put some spokes in Valakut’s wheels with its backup mana denial plan).

The cards to consider from M12 are obviously Solemn Simulacrum (seems to be tailor-crafted to be auto-included in every Birthing Pod deck ever) and
Crimson Mage (who nicely gives haste to newborn Deceiver Exarchs found by the Pod).

That’s all for today. I hope you found this brief look at the new decks interesting and that the approach presented by Russian mages will be
useful for you. Let’s bring more innovation to Standard and try to avoid stagnation like the one we were cursing only recently. Play Magic;
respect your own internal Innovator!

Valeriy Shunkov
@amartology in Twitter