As a judge in a small and fairly remote area, I don’t get to play much competitive-level Magic. It’s not a sacrifice I mind making; I judge so others can play, and in return I get to do amazing things like fly around North America to watch people play Magic. To me, it’s a fair deal. With that said, I jump at every chance I get to play in any event that doesn’t require me to judge it. With a Grand Prix Trial for GP Quebec City happening this past weekend, an event that only needs a Level One judge to run (of which we have a few locally), I had one such chance. The only problem was deciding what to play.
Being an avid consumer of content, I have been spoiled for choice in recent weeks if I wanted a suggestion on what deck to play. Bring to Light toolbox decks, R/G Landfall… there was even a Gavin Verhey article on the Mothership with twenty different decklists in it! Open Series events in Indianapolis and Atlanta told us that G/W and Bant Megamorph are very powerful, but Jeskai Black is probably the most consistent deck. Now I may never understand why that particular four-color concoction isn’t called Blackskai, but I recognize a powerful combination of cards when I see it.
I was all set to talk about a couple of different deck ideas this week. First I was going to try and turn you all on to Devoid Aggro, which has been fun at worst and powerful at best. Then I fell in love with Kiora, Master of Depths. That deck is still being tweaked but I can’t wait to get it right and share it. I even had a dalliance with my old friend Hardened Scales, a deck which lost very little but can still be a player. As I played that deck at FNM the night before the GPT though, I realized that it wasn’t playing some of the cards I really wanted in the format. Cards that were good enough for the Jeskai deck, by popular belief one of the best decks coming in to the new format, to splash black.
Starting At Brick One
I don’t generally start my brewing with a pile of cards I know I want to play, so this would be a somewhat unusual building process. Instead of building around interactions or combos, I was just going for GoodStuff.dec and hoping I chose the right “good stuff.” I started with this list of cards I knew I wanted to play:
Then I went through and added some cards that worked well with what I had:
Okay, so we’re in Mardu colours for sure. As I’ve said in previous weeks, Mardu is, in my opinion, the home of the best removal anywhere to be found right now. There’s an argument to be made that splashing blue for Mantis Rider and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy makes us better, but I want to explore the color requirements we have before going that deep. Manabases in this format basically ask you to be a genius to figure out the optimal combination, and I’d rather play fewer colors and have an easier job with that than go all-in and lose to drawing the wrong lands.
Filling In The Gaps
We’ve seen early in the format that any deck that wants to be competitive has to be able to defend against an early onslaught as well as Siege Rhinos. Mantis Rider and Jace are all over the place, as is Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. The Bring to Light decks have all but disappeared from the top tables, but control decks are still out there in the form of Esper Dragons and Sultai Control. What this tells me is that I want some early and cheap removal while still going under the clever and fancy manabases of Jeskai Black and Five-Color Control decks. For removal it doesn’t get much better and cheaper than Wild Slash right now. For aggression we can look at Forerunner of Slaughter to complement where we are. I’m also not going into battle without at least one Ruinous Path in the maindeck.
Alesha certainly provides us some interesting options for building our creature base. I never got around to trying her with Hornet Queen last Standard, but we’re not lacking in powerful targets to hit with her now. These all caught my eye:
Resolute Blademaster is almost definitely too cute for this deck, but perhaps he will show up in a future brew. Nantuko Husk might be better off elsewhere, as we don’t really have a lot of things that want to be sacrificed. As much as I love Chandra and the fact that she has started to see some play, I don’t see us running enough red spells to make her worthwhile here.
As the deck we’re making seems to be somewhere north of aggro and slightly south of midrange, we want to be able to transform for games two and three where needed. I want to be able to grind out the longer games or hang with the faster decks early, shifting around as applicable. Black offers a very powerful way to grind out games in Ob Nixilis Reignited while red lets us play another one-mana kill spell in Fiery Impulse. We also have Utter End, Ruinous Path and Valorous Stance to consider.
One card I am very interested in trying out in the sideboard is Mortuary Mire. I want an extra land for the grindy matches to both ensure I can cast Ob Nixilis on time and to make sure I get to cast two spells in one turn as early as possible. Mire also lets me recur my best threats, which in a grindfest are almost guaranteed to eat removal.
Self-Inflicted Wound is very good right now. With decks playing so many colors, you’re almost guaranteed to find a place you want to cast it. Siege Rhino, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Mantis Rider all meet the condition, and in tandem with the Doom that Crackles we can usually ensure we get our desired victim.
Here’s what I ended up registering for the tournament:
- 4 Butcher of the Horde
- 2 Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury
- 2 Brutal Hordechief
- 2 Alesha, Who Smiles at Death
- 2 Liliana, Heretical Healer
- 1 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 1 Scab-Clan Berserker
- 4 Forerunner of Slaughter
- 2 Drana, Liberator of Malakir
I like the maindeck Berseker as a way to punish removal and punish digging for answers even more, but also as a lightning rod. With the Berserker on the battlefield and Renowned, every removal spell that does not target him is a free Shock for you. He’s also a great post-sweeper threat that all but guarantees four damage with the possibility of doing more. That he comes back via Alesha is an added bonus.
Pia and Kiran Nalaar was a bit of a speculative inclusion. The ability to go wide and provide some reach were attractive, along with the fact that recurring them with Alesha is an enticing prospect. Our opponents are going to find their removal stretched anyway, so if we can play more cards like this that put multiple creatures on the battlefield at once we are going to stretch it even further.
Three power for two mana is powerful enough that we want to include Forerunner even without many other colorless threats. There are fringe cases where the ability comes in handy: playing the second one on turn three, late-game Hangarback Walkers, hasty Thopters and the ability to haste themselves after turn two.
The other speculative card is Avaricious Dragon. If I sideboard into a more aggressive version I will want ways to refuel, and the Dragon does that while keeping the pressure on. I feel like this card has to be good, and I was willing to give it a shot here.
I was able to draw into seventh before scooping in Top Eight to a guy who was actually planning to play the GP. I beat Sultai Control, Esper Dragons and G/R Ramp, losing only to R/G Landfall. The control matchups gave me an opportunity to side in the Ob Nixilis and I was very impressed with both him and the Mortuary Mire plan. At one point, the Sultai player had to kill my Liliana three times due to Mortuary Mire and Alesha, which he was able to do. Unfortunately for him I had then drawn the second one.
Secure the Wastes also overperformed. Very often the card let me hold up Utter End and then just tap out for four or five Warriors at end of turn. When you combine that instant board presence with Kolaghan or Drana, you can pump out a ton of damage in a hurry pretty much out of nowhere.
With all our graveyard interactions, flipping a Liliana was sweet. It didn’t happen often, but the removal spells she ate helped protect my other threats and let me get in for the kill. In particular, one game saw me able to connect with Drana because my opponent had to kill Liliana first, and the counters ended up making the difference as it put Drana out of range of Touch of the Void. When she did flip she joined forces with Ob Nixilis to keep me so far up on cards that my Esper opponent couldn’t compete.
Self-Inflicted Wound is a sorcery. Remember that, because I didn’t. Awkward, but not as awkward as my opponent putting his Dragonlord Ojutai in the graveyard after revealing it to cast Foul-Tongue Invocation. He did also put the Invocation in the yard, but as we didn’t notice until a couple of turns later the judge ruled that Ojutai stayed discarded. I don’t think it made a difference to the outcome of the game as I was holding Crackling Doom, but it goes to show the importance of watching the game carefully.
Brutal Hordechief was not impressive and ended up getting sided out a lot. As good as the card can be, I think it’s better out of the sideboard against decks that want to build a big board state. That five-mana ability to essentially make your team unblockable will break open any board stall. In its place we really want to look for either a solid two-drop or a way to increase the number of Drana and Liliana we run.
Pia and Kiran was great every time I cast them, but in contrast I only drew Kolaghan once and it got countered. The high end of the deck is tough to figure out, as I really wanted a way to both reward a potential go-wide board and a threat that could dodge sorcery-speed removal. Pia and Kiran did it all: they blew up Thopters in people’s faces, they sniped down attackers, they came back from the dead to make extra blockers. Just the most versatile card in that slot, and possibly good enough to warrant the inclusion of a second copy.
I never felt like I needed to bring in Avaricious Dragon. The one game I had against aggro was lost on a rough draw in game two when I needed one of my four Hangarbacks or my two Sorins to gain some life with my two Butchers and survive the next attack. I sided in the Impulses but couldn’t draw them, sadly.
Having enough white mana was occasionally a bit of a challenge. There’s a chance I should add green to make finding it easier (which sounds weird but welcome to the new Standard), but I don’t think we have enough other incentives to go that route. The manabase is not ideal though, so any tweaks or suggestions would be great. I would have loved an Abzan Advantage in the board to help against Stasis Snare and/or Quarantine Field (neither of which I saw) and play the role of a cheap Dromoka’s Command imitation, probably instead of Complete Disregard.
Scab-Clan Berserker was just fine. I was never sad to have it but it also never blew me (or more to the point, my opponent) away. I think the most damage I got from it was six, which is fine for three mana but not mind-blowing. The miser’s copy in the maindeck might just be correct.
Ruinous Path is not Hero’s Downfall, but it is very good. I never got the chance to cast it for the Awaken cost, but came close twice. I won those games anyway due to my opponent bricking, but the option to do so was a great tool to have. Don’t forget that even if you Awaken it, it still cannot be countered by Disdainful Stroke as the converted mana cost remains three.
All in all I think I have a powerful assortment of cards here. I’m going to tweak it for some more play this week and see how it feels with a larger sample size before the Pro Tour (probably) turns the format on its head. My main goal is to find another two-drop, colorless if possible, that works well with the rest of the deck. The numbers are a little scattered right now so if we can firm them up we will streamline and probably get a power spike to boot. Time will tell.
In the meantime, thanks for stopping by and as always… Brew On!