Black Magic – Grand Prix: Brussels and the Evolution of Standard

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Tuesday, March 30th – At last weekend’s Standard Grand Prix in Brussels this past weekend, Sam Black was excited to be playing his version of Blue White Control in a high level tournament. Today, he shares his tales from the tournament floor across two days of play, and presents a few thoughts on the evolution of the format going forward…

When I left for Brussels, I was excited to be playing UW Control again in a Grand Prix. I felt like the metagame had not changed in any way that was bad for me, and even though I knew that Brussels would be a huge tournament, since it’s in Europe, I felt that I’d have a reasonable chance of doing well with that deck.

My plan in Brussels was to stay with Marijn Lybaert the day I got in, and then stay in the city during the GP. When I got to Marijn’s place, he said that he had tried the UW deck on Magic Online and gave up on it because he was losing to Jund. That seemed odd to me, based on my experience with the deck in Kuala Lumpur, so I asked to test the matchup. To my surprise and disappointment, Marijn was winning more games both before and after sideboard with Jund against me. It turns out that the Jund deck is really good, but more on that later.

It wasn’t that the matchup was terrible, but beating Jund is the one thing I really want to do in this format. It was so discouraging that I was seriously tempted to switch to Mythic, and I tested a 10-game set with that against him. I was still winning half the games after sideboard (when it’s harder), so I was still satisfied with Mythic’s matchup. I didn’t have a chance to test more than that, and headed to the GP site uncertain of what I’d play.

At most GPs in Europe, there are not last chance trials the day before the event the way there are in other parts of the world. Something about venues being very expensive or there being too many people or something. For some reason (possibly due to WotC’s European branch being based in Brussels), this event was different. There were twenty trials run throughout the day, and when I got there I had a chance to walk around and see what decks people were playing.

I was excited to see that people seemed to be reacting to GP: Kuala Lumpur exactly the way I would have expected them to. I figure the normal thought process, looking at the results from KL is something like this:

That Grand Prix was dominated by Jund. Naya was also well represented, but didn’t crack the Top 8 because it can’t navigate a field of Jund. These results should make it clear that Jund is the best deck, and many people will probably play it. One should therefore either play Jund, or try to beat Jund. As this tournament showed, Red beats Jund, so Red is a reasonable choice. Red doesn’t have enough history to be the most played deck, but it will be more popular than it has been. Naya will be less popular. Another possible deck that reportedly has a good matchup against Jund is WW, which has the benefit of also presumably having a good matchup against Red, so one can prepare both for the best deck and the deck that beats the best deck by playing WW. All of these decks seemed heavily represented in the trials, from what I saw.

The next step for me is that Mythic is excellent against all of those decks, and less good against UW and Naya. Naya I expected specifically low numbers of, but I wasn’t sure about UW. Talking to people at the site and looking at trials, it looked like a lot of pros would be choosing UW, but not very many other players, relatively speaking.

Considering that the choice for me was only between Mythic and UW, I was happy regardless to see some people returning to WW, and happy that Mono Red was catching on, but a little less certain about that. Other people were playing Mythic and UW, which made me want to play UW rather than Mythic. Also, I learned for the first time about the Aggro Naya ally deck, which I heard from Nassif had been gaining popularity on Magic Online over the previous week.

I felt that UW should be able to beat Jund in theory, and it was just a matter of figuring out the proper plan. I had tested cutting all the Baneslayer Angels, as Kibler and I discussed, but found that it actually made the Jund matchup worse, as you had no lifegain, no counters, and difficulty killing them. This meant that they would almost always eventually draw enough Blightnings and Lightning Bolts to kill you after you had control of the board.

Similarly, sideboarding out Baneslayers wasn’t working against Marijn, because knowing that allowed him to side out his removal for Duresses and Goblin Ruinblasters, and then his deck was just too aggressive and disruptive – it actually went into classic Control versus Aggro Control style games, rather than Control versus Midrange, which is where you want the matchup to be. I could just hope other people weren’t as sure about my plan and left in their removal, but I didn’t really want to just be gambling on winning a sideboard lottery.

Instead, I decided that I’d cut almost all my removal, 2-3 Path, all the Day of Judgments and all the Oblivion Rings for Celestial Purge, Flashfreeze, and more threats, and hope that they trimmed their removal and I could just win by playing better trump cards.

I felt good enough about this plan that I was willing to move in on playing UW again without testing it, but I felt like I would have been exactly as happy playing Mythic.

The deck I went with was extremely similar to my deck from Kuala Lumpur. I just cut one Iona, one Island, one Oblivion Ring, and one Baneslayer Angel for one Knight of the White Orchid, one Tectonic Edge, one Path to Exile, and one Elspeth, Knight-Errant. The Knight and the Elspeth came out of the sideboard, and the Baneslayer moved to the sideboard. That opened one sideboard slot, which I devoted to Mind Control to trump Iona in the mirror. The second Iona was cut because it was no longer desirable against Jund once I was planning to be aggressive rather than just playing control to set up Iona in games 2 and 3. Finally, I figured that if Jace was there for control mirrors, Beleren might be better, since it comes down earlier, making it better against theirs, and I don’t care about the card selection. In the end, I decided that I like The Mind Sculptor’s ability to bounce Iona in the mirror and I felt that there might be random matches in which either one is better than the other, so I played one of each.

The list, for easy reference:

My tournament, briefly, since I’ve already written a tournament report with this deck:

Round 4 I played against Jund. My draw was exactly what I want in general, and in this matchup specifically: just a good mix of Chalices and Divinations so that I can get ahead on both cards and mana. Also, he didn’t have removal the turn I played Baneslayer Angel, and was only able to kill it after it had stopped an attack and then hit him once, and at that point he was far enough behind that the card advantage from the Divinations was definitely going to win me the game.

Game 2 I followed my plan above, and he got me into range of a single burn spell. Presumably he’d boarded out his Lightning Bolts, but at that point he didn’t have much going on and I played a Baneslayer Angel, and the Blightning he drew the turn after it hit him was too late to help.


Round 5 I played a feature match against UW Control with Jace and counters. This matchup is really bad if they know what they’re doing at all, since their cards really do trump yours. You have some edges, thanks to Knight of the White Orchid and extra Martial Coups, but those shouldn’t be enough. I didn’t draw Knight of the White Orchid here, and he had Jace the Mind Sculptor going. I didn’t feel like it was doing that much, since Divinations allowed me to keep up with him on always having a full hand, but he was able to find his Iona before I was, and that was game.

Game 2 I mulliganed and didn’t really do anything relevant.


Round 6 I played against Turbo Fog. It was a scary matchup, because game 1 is bad, but thanks to Iona, I might randomly win, so I can’t concede but it will take a long time. I resolved Iona, but only when I was low enough on cards that I was dead to the Archive Trap that followed.

Games 2 and 3 were much better for me, as I was simply able to set up lethal attacks with more Negates backing up the attack than my opponent had mana for Fogs and counters.


Round 7 I played against Naya. At this point my sideboard plan is to do as little as possible, since the main deck is very good. Just cut one Iona and one Path to Exile for one Baneslayer Angel and one Celestial Purge (I want an extra answer to Manabarbs and Ajani Vengeant, but I can’t afford to give up too many answers to Dauntless Escort, Stirring Wildwood, and Knight of the Reliquary). This plan felt pretty good, and both games my opponent just could answer my Baneslayer Angels.


Round 8 was against Mono Red. He had Goblin Guide both games, and I had to keep a six-card one-land hand that I only slowly drew out of in game2. Despite this, I think both games were very close, as he was only barely able to kill me after I played a Baneslayer Angel in each of them. I still think it’s a good matchup, but it didn’t work out this time.


Round 9 I played against GW and he mulled 3 times in 2 games. It wasn’t much of a match. Sideboarding was hard since all my cards were so good. In the end, I cut one Iona for one Jace, the Mind Sculptor and left everything else alone.

7-2, into Day 2

Round 10 was against a Mono Green deck splashing Maelstrom Pulse. In game 1 he just accelerated into Master of the Wild Hunt and Wolfbriar Elemental, and lost to Wraths. Somehow, I convinced myself that none of his cards were good enough for me to want to have to leave mana up on his turn to be able to counter them, and I just cut one Iona for one Baneslayer.

In game 2 on the play he played Llanowar Elf into Noble Hierarch into Acidic Slime into Mold Shambler, and I was basically dead.

For game 3 I cut 2 Oblivion Rings and an Elspeth for 3 Flashfreeze. I countered his Rampant Growth, since I was going to be tapping out the next turns, got ahead with Divination and Knights of the White Orchid, which chumped his Leatherback Baloth until I was ready to Martial Coup, and then it was pretty much over.


Round 11 was against Jund. He mulliganed both games and I knew that I had to do everything I possibly could to protect my life total, since I think the primary way to lose the matchup is to get burned out after establishing control. I Pathed his turn 2 Leech, and continued keeping my life total high by Pathing his Bloodbraid Elf and basically everything else (I drew 4 Paths this game).

Game 2 I sideboarded as per the plan, and had early Knights of the White Orchid to protect my Elspeth, and he could never get ahead.


Round 12 I played against Jund again, this time against Ben Stark. I really didn’t want to have to play against Ben, because I really wanted him to get top 32 to qualify for the rest of the events this year. He beat me in game 1 despite a mulligan, but I don’t remember the details.

Game 2 I stabilized, but didn’t have anything going on; I had a Chalice for 5 and two other Chalices. Eventually I drew Mind Spring and played it for 10, leaving mana up to play Baneslayer Angel and protect it with Flashfreeze.

Game 3 was a testament to the power of the deck, as I mulliganed and, as Ben said, beat a hand he didn’t think he could possibly lose with of 2 Savage Lands, Verdant Catacombs, Duress, Sprouting Thrinax, and 2 Blightnings. He Duressed my Flashfreeze, but I drew another one to counter his Thrinax, and the turn after he emptied my hand with the second Blightning, I drew Mind Spring and played it for 3. He played a Siege-Gang Commander, but I was able to Celestial Purge it and take control from there.


Round 13 I played against UW Control again, and again I lost game 1 to Jace, and I mulliganed into a terrible hand and did nothing in game 2.


Round 14 I played against Sedraxis Jund and won game 1, but in game 2 he came out way too fast for me with Putrid Leech into Ruinblaster on the play.

In game 3 I kept Island, Plains, 3 Chalice, Mind Spring, and an Elspeth. It was a little questionable, but I figured it had a reasonable chance to play a turn 3 Elspeth, which would be awesome on the play. If that didn’t work, it could make a lot of mana and play Mind Spring, which also seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, he Duressed my Mind Spring and I didn’t draw the second White for Elspeth on time. I played Elspeth a few turns later; it was good, and it held him off for a long time, but eventually he played a Sedraxis Specter for which I didn’t have an answer, and killed Elspeth with that and Blightning. It’s possible that I needed to find a different way to sideboard against him that would allow me to leave in all of my Path to Exiles.


Round 15 I played against Naya, and it makes me wonder how I ever had problems with the matchup in Kuala Lumpur. He had no good answers to Baneslayer Angels and Martial Coups, and the games weren’t close.


In round 16 I did the math and saw that I couldn’t make Top 32 with a win, but I didn’t do the math enough on whether I was a lock for Top 64 with a draw. Somehow, I decided to risk it, drew, and ended up exactly 64th, which was pretty lucky. I should have just played, but I didn’t get punished.

You’ll notice that it wasn’t until Round 11 that I played against an archetype I had already played against. That wasn’t unusual in this tournament. Day 1 was all over the place, and it almost felt like the format was healthy. Now, knowing that, go back and look at the Top 8 again. Notice that there are five Jund decks. It’s no longer remotely possible to deny: Jund is the best deck.

What does that mean? Well, Jund is not an unbeatable deck. It’s not a deck that it’s impossible to be a favorite against. I have claimed that Mythic, UW, Mono Red, and WW are all favored against Jund. Clearly, one can look at the results and say there’s no way that can be true, given Jund’s performance. I actually still believe that it’s true, but only barely, and only if people respect Jund.

None of those decks crush Jund. All of them barely have an edge, if and only if every decision they make in building their deck is the result of asking themselves, “Among these reasonable card choices, which one is best against Jund,” and you have to play the one that’s better against Jund every time, or you lose that edge.

If you play Bant and try to add maindeck removal, you’re no longer favored against Jund, if you play UW and play Jace over Divination, you’re no longer favored against Jund. If you try to play Cunning Sparkmage maindeck in anything, you’re not favored against Jund.

I’m not saying either of those choices is wrong. Jace is better than Divination in almost every other matchup, but I think we’re at the point where Jund is too big. You can’t make sacrifices to beat everyone else, or you won’t Top 8 a tournament. I believe that UW is a great deck, but many great players played it and none of them finished in the Top 8. I think this is because those who built to beat Jund lost to those who built to beat the mirror and other decks, and those lost to Jund.

Until people fully respect Jund, and stop building their decks to have edges against other decks that are 5% of the field, and instead just beat the 30-40% of the field that is Jund, Jund will keep dominating every tournament.

So what does that mean for now? Mythic did quite well at this tournament. Two slots in the top 8 and one in the finals is respectable considering the number of people playing it. It did well for the reasons outlined above; the same reasons I was tempted to play it, but ultimately, the deck that put up the most impressive numbers, as always, was Jund. The later in the tournament it got, the more it looked like Jund was the only deck. My advice? Play Jund if you can stand it. At this point it is clear to me that people just aren’t getting it. Not enough of them are willing to make the sacrifices required to beat Jund, and you might as well punish them for it.

I’m just hoping that enough people listen to that advice that someone can finally win with one of the decks I’d actually play.

Thanks for reading…