Black Sun’s Zenith

Three-time SCG Invitational Top 8 competitor Brian Braun-Duin is determined to make Heliod, God of the Sun a force to be reckoned with in Standard.

I have a problem. It’s not the "he would be such a successful businessman if he could just get over his wetting the bed problem" kind of problem. It’s not the "if you don’t pay what you owe me in the next week, we have a problem" kind of problem. It’s more the "things are going really well for me so I’m going to try something different instead of sticking with what works" kind of problem.

I’m partly obsessive, partly in need of a challenge, and partly nonconformist. To put my problem succinctly, I can’t just stick with the winning deck. I find a powerful deck, experience success with it, and then inexplicably throw it away to play random brews.

I’m sure I’d win more sticking with the best deck, but for some reason I can’t do it. There are so many reasons this can occur. I get tired of playing countless mirror matches. I get tired of the same lines of play occurring ad infinitum. I want to prove a point. I want to make something good. I want to challenge myself. I want to mix it up. I want to surprise my opponents. I want to have fun. I want to be recognized. I want to be different.

Usually it’s a combination of any number of those. Often I can’t even explain it. All I know is that I will get an idea that some card or strategy is good, focus on that to the exclusion of everything else, and do whatever it takes to make that card or strategy good. I become obsessive about making it work. I love the challenge of taking a single anchor point and finding the right nuts, cogs, bolts, and thingamajigs to build a working piece of machinery around it. The Standard metagame is like a lock, and I like trying to smelt an overlooked piece of metal into a key that fits. It’s challenging. It’s fun.

Last season that card was Obzedat, Ghost Council, and Orzhov Guildgate became a thing. Right now that card is Heliod, God of the Sun. For reasons beyond my comprehension, I can’t stop my thoughts from revolving around the Sun God. I have been focusing on grinding down my opponents one 2/1 Cleric at a time. I lay awake at night and think about some of life’s precious moments like a beautiful sunset; the laughter of children; or using Heliod to make two end-of-turn Clerics, untapping, casting a Spear of Heliod, activating Nykthos to generate a lot of mana, playing a second Nykthos, filtering the extra mana into more clerics, and then attacking for a solid chunk of change. It’s the little things.

I sometimes also wake up in a cold sweat thinking about my opponent untapping at three life, casting a third copy of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, and killing me. We call those nightmares. It’s hard to fall back asleep after something like that.

Gray Merchant, you say? Is there a deck that features that card? Why yes. Yes there is. It’s called Mono-Black Devotion. You may have heard of it. It just made Top 8 of the Pro Tour, won two GPs, and was a full half of the Top 8 of GP Albuquerque this past weekend. It just so happens that I’ve had a lot of success with the deck, yet for some reason instead of playing this format-defining menace that I am good at and that fits my playstyle perfectly I am instead working on decks that feature the natural curve of Soldier of the Pantheon into Angel of Serenity.

Some say it doesn’t get more natural than that.

My approach is clearly just wrong. I should just play the best deck. Yet on some primal level, I’m not sure I even want to be right. There’s something fun about going against the grain. There’s something exhilarating about being that guy. The guy that shows up with something crazy. The guy that wins with it.

If Heliod is Veronica Corningstone, then consider me Ron Burgundy. I want to be on him.

Two weeks ago I wrote an article that included a W/R/U list featuring Heliod. I spent a lot of time tuning and tweaking the list, which I dubbed "Sunny Delight" before playing it in a Versus video last week. It was truly delightful. CVM’s B/R Aggro deck got Sunny Defeated five games to zero. The deck was fun, and I felt like it was well positioned.

You could say I was riding a confidence high when I decided to play the list last weekend at the SCG Classic Series in Virginia Beach. I felt like I couldn’t lose. I was equipped with my deck, my trusty score pad, some dice, and a sunny disposition. It may have been cold and rainy outside, but indoors I could only hope my opponents brought their sunscreen because they didn’t stand a…

*puts on sunglasses*

Ray . . . of a chance of getting out of the venue without suffering damage from unblocked UV radiation. YEEaa . . . actually. No. That was awful.

Sunny Delight

Sunny D

Now accepting commissions for card alters.

Speaking of awful, my 1-2 performance with the deck wasn’t exactly "the nut high" as they say. While I may have an unrequited love affair with Squire, it’s safe to say that rocking the one-two punch isn’t exactly one of my favorite things. It’s no brown-paper package wrapped up with string. That’s for sure.

I won round 1 against Esper Control, probably the deck’s worst matchup. I then got donkey stomped by Mono-Black Devotion followed by Mono-Red Aggro in quick succession.

Thanks for playing. Have a safe trip home.

I knew coming into the tournament that I was playing a fringe strategy and that I should be prepared for any eventuality, including the one where I got crushed. Telling yourself that is one thing. Actually accepting it is another. See, I cared a lot about making Heliod good. I wanted him to be successful so badly. He was like a sun to me. The times you get invested like that are the times it hurts the most when you lose.

Still, on the way home I thought a lot about the deck. Rather than be blinded by what I wanted the deck to be, I took those hours to examine the deck from a non-biased perspective. Virginia Beach exposed a number of flaws that I knew were lurking under the surface of Sunny D. The first flaw is that corn syrup simply isn’t that healthy for you. The second flaw—and this is also true for decks like Esper Control—is that sometimes you just lose. My loss to Mono-Red pretty much fell under that umbrella. This deck is well positioned against Mono-Red, but sometimes you just lose.

When you’re playing an answer deck—a deck that is focused on chaining a bunch of removal spells into a superior endgame—sometimes you just don’t have the right removal spells. In game 3, my opponent curved Rakdos Cackler into Ash Zealot, Ash Zealot, Chandra’s Phoenix, Chandra’s Phoenix, and a burn spell to finish me off. My hand was good. I had a Chained to the Rocks for Rakdos Cackler and a Detention Sphere for his two Ash Zealots, but I lacked a follow-up to the two subsequent copies of Chandra’s Phoenix. He had too many threats, and my answers didn’t line up.

Another key flaw is that the deck plays 28 lands in order to hit the right land drops on the right turns. Due to the nature of this nearly mono-white deck needing actual Mountains for Chained to the Rocks along with enough blue sources to reliably cast Sphinx’s Revelation, the mana base is such that you have to run five Guildgates and zero Temples. Quite simply, regardless of how powerful or synergistic the cards were in the deck, the mana sucked, and it was a significant problem.

Ultimately, I decided I was going to give up on the deck. Between the mana issues and the fact that you can frequently just lose to not having the right answers when other decks efficiently execute their strategy, I was done. It was hard to see the deck being consistently powerful enough to succeed in a long event.

Like any rational person would do, I moved on.

Like any obsessive, irrational person would do, I moved on to a completely different shell that still focused on Heliod. I’d spear you the details, but unfortunately that’s kind of why I’m here.

Solar Eclipse

Many good superhero stories follow the same plot arc. The good guy gets overwhelmed by the bad guys and descends into a spiraling path to the bottom before finally rising up again at the end victorious. Heliod will be no different. He finally broke under the constant pressures that built up around him. He decided once and for all that the only way to beat the forces of darkness that swirled around inside his mind was to become that same force of darkness himself.

Is there a solar eclipse currently happening or did Heliod just go dark?

U2 wrote a song about this deck. It’s called Bloody SunDay. On Saturday Heliod was slaughtered in Virginia Beach. By Sunday Heliod had picked up Blood Crypt and was taking part in the Slaughter Games himself.

I like to call the deck Sunny Delight: Black Cherry. Same mediocre flavor, half the calories. I’m also partial to Black Hole Sun God or Black Sun God’s Zenith. Really, the sky’s the limit here.

"Sands of the desert, rise and block out the sun!"

So what makes this deck different? Why is this version of the deck any better than the other version? Is replacing Detention Sphere and Sphinx’s Revelation with Soldier of the Pantheon and Blood Baron really an upgrade?

The answer is a surprising yes. For one, the mana base is significantly stronger. Whereas the other deck had to play cards like Azorius Guildgate and Izzet Guildgate to meet the stringent demands on the mana base, this deck can afford to play the full eight Temples and 27 lands instead of 28. The advantage that provides is that you don’t have to worry about flooding out or getting mana screwed nearly as much. Keeping a Temple and a shock land is a much more appealing two-land hand than a Guildgate and a shock land. Likewise, I don’t mind keeping a five-land hand with a few Temples since I can just scry away any land I see.

Secondly, this deck can pressure decks a lot better than the W/R/U version. With Soldier of the Pantheon and Blood Baron in the mix, it’s possible to play a reasonable midrange beatdown game against a number of decks. The W/R/U version would often suffer from taking too long to get going with cards like Assemble the Legion. Blood Baron is also just a very strong card right now against Mono-Red, Mono-Black, and W/R. If the Jund deck that [author name="Matt Costa"]Matt Costa[/author] used to win Providence picks up in popularity, then Blood Baron gets even better. The natural predators to Blood Baron are decks like G/R Devotion, but that deck has kind of fallen by the wayside.

Another positive is that this version simply features a better curve. As powerful as Sphinx’s Revelation is, when your opening hand is Heliod, Sphinx’s Revelation, and five lands, it’s tough to piece that together into a win. The W/R/B version can start interacting with the board a lot sooner thanks to a reduced curve.

One suggestion a lot of people had was to play Rakdos’s Return main. The idea is that with devotion fueling Nykthos having a huge X spell like Rakdos’ Return would just be an awesome mana sink. I was skeptical but willing to try it out. I cut an Elspeth for a single Rakdos’s Return. I then proceeded to lose the first round of the next few eight-man events I played on Magic Online with the deck. I drew Rakdos’s Return in game 1 each time, and each time I would have won the game if it were Elspeth instead.

Let’s just say I’m not making that mistake again. Elspeth it is. The full four Elspeths may seem like overkill, but I assure you it’s not. While I found Elspeth to be very disappointing and underwhelming in Sunny Delight, she has been a sun godsend in Black Cherry. With four Elspeths and 3 Mizzium Mortars, this version of the deck is less vulnerable to opposing Blood Barons and Stormbreath Dragons. Dreadbore can also handle Stormbreath Dragon, which is a plus.

Speaking of Dreadbore, while nothing can really replace Detention Sphere, Dreadbore does a good impression. Outside of Thassa, God of the Sea; Master of Waves; and Underworld Connections, Dreadbore is able to handle pretty much all of the commonly played cards as well as Detention Sphere.

Another awesome thing about this deck is that you have access to a powerful array of sideboard tools. I like the sideboard of this deck a lot more than the sideboard of the W/R/U version.

Thoughtseize, Rakdos’s Return and Slaughter Games offer a nice trifecta of powerful options against decks like Esper Control and Mono-Black Devotion. I’ve been extremely impressed with Slaughter Games. Leading into a Slaughter Games with Thoughtseize gives you perfect information on what card to name, and Slaughter Games on Gray Merchant of Asphodel makes it very difficult for Mono-Black Devotion to beat you. They have to rely solely on the combat step, which is no small feat against the wide array of removal spells that this deck has access to.

Against Esper Control, a Slaughter Games on Aetherling or Sphinx’s Revelation are both very powerful lines of play. Esper has a hard time actually killing you without Aetherling in their deck, and without Sphinx’s Revelation they have few ways to pull ahead against your Heliods and Elspeths.

Both the W/R/U and the W/R/B versions are already well positioned against aggressive decks thanks to a plethora of cheap removal and powerful early creatures like Precinct Captain and Boros Reckoner. The issue comes in beating the midrange and control decks. I think this version has a much more robust plan against a deck like Mono-Black because you can side out all of your creatures except Blood Baron and just out-control them.

In fact, I typically side in all fifteen cards against Mono-Black Devotion, cutting the three Mortars, four Precinct Captains, four Soldier of the Pantheons, and four Boros Reckoners. What generally ends up happening in post-board games is they get stuck with cards like Hero’s Downfall and Devour Flesh just rotting in hand. You can use your removal spells to handle the few creatures they produce and Pithing Needle and Wear // Tear to handle Underworld Connections and then just grind them out. Eventually a Rakdos’s Return or Heliod can run them out of removal and clear the path for Blood Baron and Elspeth to finish the job.

The one matchup that has given me problems is Mono-Blue Devotion. I added two Last Breaths to the sideboard to provide a good removal spell for both Master of Waves and Mutavault, two problematic cards. Ultimately, I’m still not terribly pleased with the matchup, but I’m positive there is a way to make it good.

Overall, I think this deck has a lot going for it and with the right tuning could end up being a powerful force in Standard.

There is just one chapter left to be written in Heliod’s saga. He was the good guy. After suffering a crushing defeat, he turned to the dark side. All that remains is the ultimate redemption. All that’s left is for him to rise back up victorious, destroying all forces that would oppose him. I just hope I’m at the helm when it happens.

All we can hope is we’re on the right side of the table when that day finally comes. Don’t be the person sitting across the table when Heliod finally snaps and you hear him say that immortalized phrase from the classic film Debtor’s Pulpit Fiction.

"Imma get clerical on your ass."