Breaking Standard For Worlds

Brian Kibler tells you about the G/R Aggro deck he played at the World Championship that’s since taken Standard by storm and provides you with updated list for #SCGNY and #SCGSLC!

The World Championship is a unique tournament. With three rounds each of four formats across two days, it’s an incredibly difficult event to prepare for effectively. Not only that, but the rewards for excellence in a particular section of the tournament are relatively small. Having an unbeatable deck for one of the Constructed formats can at best lead to three wins, which isn’t even close to getting you into the Top 4 by itself.

A lot of people looked at the decklists for the Standard portion of the World Championship and bemoaned a stale format, but the sea of Jund and U/W/R Flash was a symptom of the event itself. With only three rounds of Standard in the tournament and a weekend featuring Grand Prix Calgary and the StarCityGames.com Invitational immediately prior to the event, who in their right mind would spend a significant amount of time trying to break the format, especially since it could change so radically based on the results from those tournaments? I expected the decks that showed up to be the "safe" choices in the field—pretty much U/W/R Flash and Jund—so I set out to find a deck to beat them.

My own preparation for the Standard portion of Worlds began when I first looked at the full spoiler. As I pointed out in my early articles about M14, the cards that immediately stood out to me were Elvish Mystic and Burning Earth. I posted this list in my very first article talking about cards from the new set:

As I mentioned in that article, the ability to sideboard Burning Earth is an incredible incentive to play a one- or two-color aggressive deck with red. Leading up to Worlds, Burning Earth hadn’t really seen a lot of play, so I didn’t anticipate people skewing their decks and deck choices significantly to beat it. A number of people have commented that it’s strange to build a deck around a card in the sideboard, but I think that demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s important in deckbuilding. Decks are not 60 cards—they’re 75. In a tournament, more games are played with sideboards than without, so a particularly strong sideboard is a tremendous incentive to play a deck. I knew I wanted to build an aggressive deck with Burning Earth, and G/R seemed like the best shell for it.

I didn’t actually start playing games of Standard until I was on my way to Amsterdam, but the first deck I had built looked a lot like that list, though I was playing with Wolfir Silverheart over Kalonian Hydra. My initial "playtesting" was just shuffling my deck and dealing out sample hands on my tray table throughout my flight, but it was looking good so far! Once I got to Amsterdam, I found some real opponents, battling against Josh Utter-Leyton, David Ochoa, and Dan Cecchetti from the U.S. national team. Playing against a gauntlet of Jund, U/W/R Flash, and B/W Tokens, I came to a few conclusions pretty quickly.

The first was that Predator Ooze just wasn’t worth it. Ooze put a ton of constraints on the mana base, and every deck had some way to remove it, whether it was Tragic Slip or Azorius Charm. It just wasn’t good enough to justify the sacrifices that came from playing it, even if it’s a sweet creature to throw into the arena with Domri. I tried a few Kalonian Tuskers for a while to get more cheap creatures into the deck, but since I didn’t have the physical cards, I was using Flinthoof Boars as proxies—and almost every time I drew them I wished they were actually just Boars.

The next conclusion was that Wolfir Silverheart may be a big monster but he’s no Dragon. Too often Silverhearts would just bounce off of Doomed Travelers, Thragtusks, and Augur of Bolases. With Predator Ooze out of the deck, I was able to add actual Mountains, which meant I was able to play Thundermaw Hellkite. Thundermaw was a huge upgrade, turning a big dopey ground creature into a hasty flier who can fly over all of that nonsense.

I was a little leery of the colored mana requirements, so when I shuffled the creature base around a bit, I replaced some of the cards I cut with Borderland Rangers. Borderland Ranger isn’t the sort of card that I typically like, but in a deck with so many mana creatures, I wanted to be able to keep a high Forest count to give myself a good chance to play an Elf on the first turn while still having enough Mountains to reliably cast Hellkite without playing too many lands. Borderland Ranger is something of a compromise that also happens to play well with Domri.

Without Ooze I felt like I was a bit short in action to accelerate into with three mana as well, so I decided to try out Wolfir Avenger. Avenger is a card that hasn’t really gotten much respect during its time in Standard, but it’s a pretty solid option that can attack into Thragtusks with impunity while also offering a lot of flexibility against U/W/R Flash.

I also started to sour a bit on Bonfire of the Damned. As it became more clear that U/W/R Flash and Jund were going to be the most popular decks in the field (mostly because they kept beating W/B, Elves, and the other fringe competitors we threw at them), I became more certain that playing a removal spell that was bad against both of them was a bad idea. I originally tried a split of Mizzium Mortars and Flames of the Firebrand to give me more options against Blood Artist decks and the ability to go to the face, but I ultimately felt like Mortars was so much better against Jund (and specifically Olivia) that it was the only one I really wanted.

At this point, my deck looked something like this:

I felt pretty good about the deck. I was beating both U/W/R Flash and Jund pretty consistently, especially after sideboarding when I got to bring in Burning Earth. U/W/R Flash in particular was incredibly vulnerable to the sheer number and power level of noncreature threats I was able to produce. Between Domri Rade and Burning Earth, I had eight virtually game-winning permanents that I could play with three or four mana, making it very hard for them to ever do anything useful. Even against Jund sideboarding multiple Golgari Charms, Burning Earth was proving to be a powerful tool to help close out games.

Then he showed up: 

When the results came in from Calgary and a Jund deck featuring four Lifebane Zombies (and no Farseeks somehow) finished in second place, we retooled our Jund lists and began playing again. I started losing. A lot. Not only was the actual enters-the-battlefield trigger of Lifebane Zombie very powerful against me, but the board presence it offered was a huge deal. Previously, Jund was often hard pressed to deal with a fast draw containing multiple Flinthoof Boars because its curve didn’t really start until four mana. With Lifebane Zombie, however, it had an early play that could not only trade for my creatures but to do so while providing value.

A quick aside before I go further: I really dislike the design of Lifebane Zombie. If you look at all of the other color hoser creatures in M14, you’ll see that they all provide substantial options for counterplay. You can kill a Tidebinder Mage to free up your creature. You can fight a Fiendslayer Paladin in combat. You can cast your spells during your own turn to avoid triggering a Witchstalker. You can get a Mindsparker off the board before unloading your instants and sorceries.

But with Lifebane Zombie? Once it enters the battlefield, they take your creature, and it’s gone forever. Nothing you can do about it. The only way to "play around it" is to just not have a green or white creature in your hand when your opponent plays it, which is hardly an interesting gameplay decision. Even if you play with all cheap creatures, you’re likely to still have some in your hand by the time your opponent plays Lifebane Zombie, and the fact that your creatures are small means it’s all that much more likely the Zombie will trade with one of them and two-for-one you!

And if you play with big cool creatures like the new Kalonian Hydra? Well, you better just hope they don’t draw Zombie at any point before you can cast it because there’s nothing you can do about it. The fact that the Zombie’s body is efficient enough that it’s seen as a reasonable maindeck choice makes its lack of counterplay options that much more egregious.

I knew I needed to retool my deck in order to combat Lifebane Zombie if I was going to actually play it. At this point, it was Monday night—we had to submit our decklists at the player meeting on Tuesday. I lay in bed for a while unable to sleep, thinking about how I could shift things around to make Lifebane Zombie hurt less, and that’s when I thought of Hellrider.

I wanted to shift my higher cost creatures away from green and into red to give me as much protection from the Lifebane ability as possible as well as ensure that my early drops were better at profitably attacking into the Zombie. This led me back to Strangleroot Geist, a card I cut from my original list when I shifted the mana toward red. To support both Geist and Hellrider, I cut the second Wolf Run from the deck and added more Mountains as well as more lands in general, which also meant cutting the Borderland Rangers and shaving my mana dork count to avoid flooding out. That led me to the following list, which you have likely seen by now:

One thing that I realized while I was testing against Lifebane Jund was that Burning Earth was not particularly effective. With so many cheap spells in their deck, it was possible for Jund to be at parity or even ahead in the early turns of the game, which made Burning Earth a very weak play, especially when they could just make up the life loss with Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk and absolutely bury you if you took a turn off to play it.

That was where the idea for Gruul War Chant came in. War Chant was a way to keep Lifebane Zombie from stunting my initial offense as well as to reduce the effectiveness of Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk as defensive measures. Against Lifebane Zombie Jund decks, I actually didn’t board in Burning Earth at all and brought in Gruul War Chant instead. I ended up never drawing the card during the tournament, so it’s entirely possible it’s terrible, but it seemed good in theory.

Amusingly, a brief conversation with Mark Rosewater made me realize that there was likely a far better option available in M14: Chandra, Pyromaster. The new Chandra is far better against Lifebane Zombie, outright killing it with the +1 ability, and also makes it very difficult for the opponent to hold the ground with a single Thragtusk or other large creature.

Chandra also has enormous upside on an empty board, letting you effectively draw and play an extra card every turn. Since this deck is almost entirely proactive cards, there are very few cards you can actually hit with Chandra that you can’t or won’t want to play, with the exception of Mizzium Mortars or a duplicate planeswalker, but if you’re in the position that you have Chandra going and your opponent has no creatures to kill, you’re probably in pretty good shape to begin with.

After going 3-0 with it in Worlds, it was pretty cool to see how big of an impact my deck had on the World Magic Cup. Not only did my deck not share many cards with other major decks (except lands with Jund), but it also had solid matchups against two of the "default" decks for the Unified Standard format in Jund and U/W/R Flash. I had a number of players come up to me both at the venue over the weekend and even randomly in the airport when I was leaving to thank me for the list and tell me that it had contributed significantly to their team’s success in the tournament. Seeing four copies in the Top 16 of the last Standard Open was just icing on the cake!

I’ve had a lot of people ask a number of questions about the deck over the past week, but the most common by far has been "why don’t you play Burning –Tree Emissary?" The simple answer is that every card in the deck is better than Burning-Tree at doing what this deck wants to do. The more complex answer is that Burning-Tree Emissary is not a very good card in a deck without a huge number of creatures you can cast off of the mana.

What would I play Burning-Tree instead of? Scavenging Ooze? If I cut Ooze, I only have Flinthoof Boar as a two-drop to cast off of the mana the Emissary generates. Strangleroot Geist? Geist is a better aggressive card than Burning-Tree in everything but the best draws early on and is a far better draw late in the game when you need to get additional damage in. Mana creatures? The mana dorks help make the more expensive creatures in the deck awesome instead of average. I’d by far rather be able to cast an early Thundermaw Hellkite than have a 2/2 in play, especially in a format where my most common opponents are casting Augur of Bolas and Huntmaster of the Fells.

Before you ask someone "why don’t you play X card," ask yourself what you would take out if you were to add that card. We don’t have infinite slots to play with.

I wish I had another opportunity to play this deck in a big event because it was a ton of fun. Sadly, the only Standard Grand Prix before rotation are overseas, and I won’t be able to make it out to a StarCityGames.com Open Series. That said, if I were to play the deck again, I’d certainly make a few changes. Moving forward, it’s pretty clear that the mirror match is an important consideration. I think the best card there is probably Volcanic Strength, which also happens to be pretty good against Naya, one of the matchups you can use some help in. I’d probably continue to ignore Hexproof since you can race many of their draws that don’t include Unflinching Courage and the deck is still not terribly popular.

With that in mind, if I were to enter a Standard event today, my list would probably look something like this:

I’m definitely going to take this deck for a spin in some upcoming videos, so be on the lookout for those. Gotta get my Dragon fix in before Theros comes out while I still can!

Until next time,