Black Magic – Preparing for Pro Tour: San Diego

Grand Prix: Oakland!

Tuesday, February 9th – In preparation for the approaching Pro Tour in San Diego, Sam Black is in an unusual position. He is currently unaffiliated with a team, and thus he’s able to share his decklists and thoughts on the Standard format so far! In this edition of Black Magic, he shares five popular strategies, updated with the new cards…

Pro Tour San Diego is in under two weeks, so I’m currently in the middle of my preparation. At this point I’ve been testing with my roommates, who are not qualified, so I feel comfortable discussing exactly where I am in my testing without fear of giving away someone else’s tech. This is an unusual spot to be in, so I’m going to take advantage of it by going over exactly where I am in preparing for this Standard format.

With Worldwake being added to the format, it’s obviously player’s responsibility to determine how the new set will change things, but since nothing has left, the easiest way to do this is to test possible new strategies against updated old strategies. Also, History has shown that players are generally a little slow to adapt new cards, so it’s safe to assume that the metagame for this Pro Tour will be largely rooted in our previous Standard format. This means new considerations have to be tested primarily against Jund, Grixis, Vampires, UWR Control, Boros, and the like. Some changes are very obvious or likely though, and those need to be taken into account. I’d like to say that the first thing to do is to come up with an estimation of how the metagame will look, and that’s fair, but really, testing has to evolve around itself. I can predict what I think people will play based on what looks good, but if testing shows that the decks I thought would be most played aren’t doing well, other people might come to the same conclusion, and they might not be that popular. Similarly, if I find something I thought would be obscure that does very well, it’s reasonable to conclude other people may also find it, and it might be significantly represented. The trick to testing is that none of the steps are ever completed. You always have to re-evaluate the expected metagame, rebuild the decks to test, and retest the new decks.

So, my predictions for the metagame so far:

Jund will continue to be the most played deck, but it will stand out much less than it has.

Blue-based control decks will almost all, if not all, play Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and will rise in popularity. They will almost always either be Grixis or UWR. They will also almost all play Treasure Hunt. These decks will be able to beat Jund.

Vampires will be played more than it has been and will do better, thanks to both of the above suppositions, as Vampires is relatively weak against Jund and very strong against control.

Red decks are in an interesting place, as Kor Firewalker is a huge problem, except that it might be underplayed due to not having a great home. Still, its presence means that UWR, already a bad matchup for Red decks, is likely to get even worse (and, as mentioned, more common).

The format will be very diverse.

Tectonic Edge will be one of the most significant cards from Worldwake, and will substantially punish three-color decks and spells, but its impact might not be fully realized in time for this event.

With those general assumptions out of the way, let’s look at the decks I’ve been working with. These are not necessarily what I consider the most important decks, and they don’t represent a full gauntlet. This is just where I am in my work at the time of writing. I have built and played with:

This build is substantially more aggressive than previously successful version of Vampires. I’ve gone back to playing the outdated Vampire Lacerator to maximize the impact of Kalastria Highborn by having my opponent at a lower life total, having more creatures in play, and lowering my curve to leave more mana up. I’m clearly working hard for it, but I’m pretty sure the effect is powerful enough to justify it. I think wins against Jund are generally going to come more from having sufficient pressure than from attrition, and that seems true in the mirror and control matches. Kalastria Highborn can just give the deck so much reach. It’s especially good at making Bloodghast unblockable.

Four Tectonic Edge is more than I started with and a little more than I’m fully comfortable with, but so far in testing, the card has been too impressive for me to not try to play the full amount. It’s consistently been able to deny Jund and UWR Control access to one of their colors for a substantial number of turns. Decks in this format aren’t built to have their mana disrupted, as demonstrated by Spreading Seas, and this card is better at attacking mana.

Quest for the Gravelord is in the sideboard against Jund rather than playing additional two-for-ones in an attempt to fight on card advantage as a way to put as much pressure on as possible.

Bloodhusk Ritualist is an experiment over Mind Sludge that I’m trying out partially due to a slightly lower Swamp count, partially just because I want to try a new card, partially because it can’t be Swerved, and partially because I like that it’s live even against a small hand, which is more important when I’m playing 4 Duress as well. Despite those considerations, Mind Sludge might just be better – it is a very powerful card.

Marsh Casualties is there for general utility, as there are a lot of fringe matchups (and possibly the mirror) where it’s very good, but I’m not actually sure that it’s better than just having something like Disfigure or the 4th Urge to Feed and Tendrils of Corruption.

Removal in this deck is minimized, since its creatures can usually win most fights. Marshal’s Anthem is being tested, but has seemed pretty good so far. I’m currently at 26 lands because I’ve been unhappy with fewer. I’d still like more basics as well as another Sejiri Steppe, which has been amazing. I might have to cut the Khalni Garden, which is unfortunate, because I think the card is amazing. I’m also frustrated that I can’t work at least one Tectonic Edge in, but the colored mana requirements have been too difficult. Fortunately, it’s only been a problem in the early game, so I’m not too worried about the deck’s vulnerability to the Edge.

Oran-Rief Recluse is included in the sideboard specifically as an answer to Malakir Bloodwitch, but its ability to kill other vampires as well as Baneslayer Angel and Emeria Angel is also significant. The remaining sideboard cards should be fairly obvious. I’m undecided on whether I’d rather have Great Sable Stag or Celestial Purge against Jund and Vampires, but I think, in context, Stag’s added utility against Blue gives it the edge.

Earlier I was trying Omnath, Locus of Mana, but I wasn’t too impressed. He’s just a little too easy to kill early for this deck, I think.

I also tried Steppe Lynx and Night of the White Orchid in a more White-based, more aggressive shell with Honor of the Pure, but I felt like the decks wins were coming from its powerful creatures, and the rest of what was happening didn’t matter much, so I’d rather just be dedicated to casting and protecting them.

I haven’t been happy with this deck. I’ve learned a lot about the way the cards in the deck interact, specifically Worldwake’s Halimar Depths/Treasure Hunt/Jace, the Mind Sculptor engine, but it feels like there’s something wrong with the deck. I’ve been running into the problem I’ve had for the last year, that control decks often lack inevitability. This deck wins when it manages to stick both of its planeswalkers, but that’s not really saying much. Too often, you can draw several cards more than the opponent and still lose. Part of the problem is that I’ve cut Earthquake, and have no sweeper as a result, but Earthquake was seriously under-performing against Vampires. I’m tempted to try maindeck Chain Reaction, since it plays very well with Wall of Denial, but I’m afraid of how bad it is when it’s at its worst. Treasure Hunt is very good at keeping a hand full, which is important against Blightning, but it generally keeps a hand full of bad cards, since it results in not using fetch lands to shuffle away lands seen with Jace and Halimar Depths, and instead to just draw them all. Somehow, I have not always managed to turn a hand full of lands into game wins. Everflowing Chalice might just give the deck too many mana sources. It’s possible this isn’t the right home for that card, particularly since, once the engine gets going, the deck never misses land drops. I’ve felt enough like the deck needs more of everything that I’m tempted to try Ponder, but I’m worried that that’s just more slots for cards that aren’t really winning the game.

This is clearly a weird Jund list, but people don’t seem to be able to agree on what cards Jund should be playing. I figure playing one of each of several cards I can expect to see occasionally gives me the closest approximation of playing against a variety of different Jund decks, while also allowing me to get a feel for which cards work better than others. Not to mention the fact that, if I were to play Jund again, I’d be likely to want to play something similarly flexible. I should add though, that there’s almost no way I would play Jund again, given how much I’ve disliked it in the past, combined with the fact that I feel that Treasure Hunt, Jace, and Tectonic Edge are all extremely bad for the deck.

Those are the decks I have assembled that I’m testing with. There are other decks I’ve tried and dismissed. The next decks I need to assemble are Grixis and some kind of aggressive Red deck (Red Deck Wins, Boros, Goblins, or any combination).

With Grixis, I think Tectonic Edge is too good at disrupting Cruel Ultimatum, and I want to try Everflowing Chalice, so I’m hoping to try not playing Cruel Ultimatum at first. I plan to build something like:

I have some concerns. The curve is a little high and I’m a little worried about only one Sorin for life gain main, but it looks like it should have less of a problem with inevitability, it plays a lot of cards I like, and it lets me try some things. The Snappers are there mostly to deal with Bloodghast and Sprouting Thrinax. Vampire Hexmage is there primarily as a removal spell for planeswalkers. Abyssal Persecutor is a card I’m really optimistic about in this deck, since it didn’t have any great 4s before and I wasn’t really planning to win the game without getting an active Jace at some point anyway, so I’m not too worried about his drawback. He seems like a good, hard-to-kill stopper. (I mention hard to kill because it really bothers me when people say a 4 mana, 6 toughness, Black creature “dies to anything.” Do you have any idea how many removal spells that people play in this format don’t kill Abyssal Persecutor? It’s most of them.)

From here, my goal is to make a chart of every deck I expect see in the PT plotted in rows and columns, and to fill the chart with approximate win percentages, then I hope to get enough of a feel of how decks are positioned and what people are excited about to assign approximate portions of the field to each of those decks. I can then multiply the win percentage by the expected portion of the field each matchup is supposed to be to calculate any given deck’s expected win percentage against the field. Then I can chose the deck that I don’t hate with the highest win percentage against the field, and work on shoring up any glaring problems in its matchups. I’m hoping to be scientific about all this.

I hope it has been useful to get this snapshot of my Pro Tour preparation, and I hope I’m doing well enough with it that my predictions will correspond with reality.

Thanks for reading…