Deep Analysis – Trial By Fire: Kavu Justice

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Kavu Justice was a beatdown star in Time Spiral Block Constructed. Now we have the fresh meat that is Lorwyn to add to the mix, can we update the deck for a post-Krakow Standard metagame? Richard Feldman believes we can. He throws his deck against the best that the Grand Prix Top 8 had to offer, with surprising results…

A boring (but effective) way to approach a new format is to playtest all of the existing decks against one another to learn their relative strengths and weaknesses. This is a good way to start preparing for a Pro Tour, or a PTQ season.

A fun way to approach a new format, such as post-Krakow Standard, is to see if you can come up with something that beats the top decks from the format-defining tournament right off the bat. Since it’s Limited PTQ season and the pressure’s off on Constructed, I went for the fun approach.

The tough part about writing a Standard article is that everyone’s local metagame is different. I could go on and on all day about the U/W Pickles matchup and totally miss the boat for someone because nobody in his area plays that deck. In past Standard seasons I’ve gone off the MTGO metagame, but honestly, few peoples’ local environments ever look like that. This time around, I’m going to try to customize it a bit more. I’ll aim for the Krakow Top 8 in this article, and listen to forum responses to get a feel for what’s popular in peoples’ local environments for future articles. So when you’re done reading, sound off in the forums on what matchups you’re interested in seeing!

Taking a look at the Krakow Top 8, I see lots of Blue, several Shapeshifters, several Mannequins, and G/R and Faeries decks breaking the mold a bit. It seems like the best place to get started is to aim for a Guile deck (I’ll choose Wafo-Tapa’s), a Mannequin deck (I’ll choose Ruel’s, 61 cards and all), and a Pickles deck (I’ll choose Cheon’s).

How to beat these? At first, a straightforward G/R or W/R (with Kithkin) build seemed like just what the doctor ordered, but those decks can come up short in the raw power department for local metagames — and besides, Phyrexian Ironfoot is a terrible thorn in those decks’ sides. (Where’s a good Char when you need it?)

I picked Kavu Justice after a good deal of thought. It’s known for its proficiency at Pickles-smashing, it’s got a Nuts Draw that creates a 7/7 on turn 3, it can decimate entire Faerie populations with three mana, it can play both Treetop Village and Troll Ascetic (a card I’m finally interested in playing, for the first time in the entire history of its legality in Block, Standard, and Extended), and it can play Grove of the Burnwillows for pain-free mana fixing without crying itself to sleep at night.

Here’s the first list I tried out.

Kavu Justice

4 Treetop Village
4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
4 Horizon Canopy
4 Ancient Amphitheater
2 Karplusan Forest
2 Brushland

4 Tarmogoyf
3 Gaddock Teeg
4 Kavu Predator
4 Troll Ascetic
3 Saffi Eriksdotter
4 Brion Stoutarm
2 Stonecloaker

4 Tarfire
4 Fiery Justice
4 Oblivion Ring

First up is Guillaume Wafo-Tapa Mono-U Guile list.

Game 1 (on the play): I lead with Gaddock and Treetop Village. Those two beat him down to 5 when he intercepts the Kithkin with Teferi. I finish him off with Tarfire, and the opponent drops Guile to block the Treetop Village. Instead of attacking with it, I refuel with a pair of 3/4 Tarmogoyfs. With only counterspells in hand and Guile on the table, the opponent can only stop three of the nine points of incoming power.

Game 2 (on the play): This time I lead with an 0/1 Goyf and Treetop beats starting on turn 3. He has to dig for lands with Think Twice, allowing me to get in with Goyf. Eventually an Ancestral goes off to pump the Goyf again, while I find a second Village and beat him down to five before he hits Teferi mana. I play Ampitheater untapped off a Brion Stoutarm and get in with the second Treetop for lethal.

Game 3 (on the play): This is like a replay of game 1. I start with Gaddock and Treetop and just beat him down until he gets to Teferi mana. Then I refuel with a Goyf and a Fiery Justice on Teferi that he has to counter, next turn he has to chump the 4/5 Goyf, and next turn the Goyf kills him.

Game 4 (on the play): I have turn 2 Kavu, turn 3 Fiery Justice off a Grove, and he has only a Remove Soul. Next turn I play Saffi as bait (countered by the Remove Soul) and then Gaddock, protecting my lethal Kavu from Cryptic Command next turn. Fortunately, he has Command and not Venser, so I win.

Game 5 (on the play): I stick a Troll Ascetic, but then draw two Oblivion Rings and a Justice. The Ascetic beats down, but then Guile shows up. I Ring it, and he Pacts it (just countering it – the only legal target for the Ring was his Guile!), I replay the Ring next turn…and he Pacts again. Then he untaps with Guile out and a stacked hand, and my Troll just can’t close the deal.

Game 6 (on the draw): I mull to five; he counters all my relevant drops and hits Guile with two Pacts in hand. I manage to kill Guile, but he has Ancestral to refuel and active Factory to shut me completely down.

Game 7 (on the draw): He gets out two Deserts to stop my Gaddocks and Saffis, but I beat him down to 7 with a Tarmogoyf. Unfortunately, he has the Pact to go with his Guile, stopping my Oblivion Ring.

Game 8 (on the draw): I put down Gaddock Teeg and a Treetop and start going to town. He doesn’t find any non-counters in time; by the time he has Guile, I have a second Treetop and can swarm around for the win.

Game 9 (on the draw): He counters all my creatures and plays Guile with Pact backup on turn 6. Seems good.

Game 10 (on the draw): Again he counters most of my drops and plays Guile on turn 6 with Pact backup.

So that’s 4-1 on the play and 1-4 on the draw. Heh. That makes sense, though; his ability to counter my two-drop made all the difference in the world in these games.

Really, though, I could have done a lot better when I was on the draw. I had a lot of dead cards, and probably should not be playing so many if I expect to see this matchup a lot. The Oblivion Rings were no good until he had Guile, at which point he always had the Pact of Negation. I’m not just complaining, either—with 4 Ancestral and 4 Think Twice, it’s not unreasonable to expect that by the time he hits his sixth land drop and plays Guile, that he will have found one of his Pacts as well. Fiery Justice was fairly blank, but this was the one matchup where I was expecting it to do little. Stonecloaker never did anything, nor did Saffi. Tarfire was okay as an accomplice to killing Teferi, but that was about it. Gaddock was better than Saffi, but only twice was he any better than a random bear. Brion Stoutarm was fine as a generic 4/4 beater; when I resolved him, he was fine, but he didn’t resolve often.

Treetop Village was MVP. Troll Ascetic and Kavu Predator were fantastic. Tarmogoyf was Tarmogoyf.

To get a better picture of what the problem was, I’m going to rank all the threats and answers in my deck from best to worst in this matchup. The following is roughly the ordering of cards I’m happy to draw against Mono-Blue Guile.

(Great cards in this matchup)
1) Treetop Village
2) Troll Ascetic
3) Tarmogoyf
4) Kavu Predator

(Decent cards in this matchup)
5) Brion Stoutarm
6) Gaddock Teeg

(Weak cards in this matchup)
7) Saffi Eriksdotter
8) Tarfire
9) Stonecloaker
10) Oblivion Ring
11) Fiery Justice

This varies a bit, naturally. If I’m on the play, I want turn 1 Treetop, turn 2 Kavu Predator (definitely not an 0/1 Tarmogoyf or a Troll Ascetic I can’t cast until turn 3, but midgame and late-game Goyfs and Ascetics can be substantially better than Predators in the same situation—especially if I don’t have a Grove or can’t resolve a Justice.

I think Riftsweeper would do better than Saffi, even for the situational use of killing an Ancestral. Riftsweeper would also do a lot better against Epochrasite and Gargadon, which seems useful enough.

Strangely, Mana Tithe would be absolutely amazing in this matchup. There are so many times when Guile taps out for something huge like Teferi or Guile, and being able to stop it would mean the world.

I’m going to try this:

+3 Mana Tithe
+4 Riftsweeper
-3 Saffi Eriksdotter
-2 Oblivion Ring
-2 Stonecloaker

Next up is the deck Cheon and LSV (I assume) played at Krakow: U/W Pickles.

Game 1 (on the play): I start with a plain Riftsweeper and Treetop Village, which is a great opening. I smash for five a couple of times, then we trade dorks a bit. I Tarfire a morph and then Justice away two more, as he tries to hold off my offense. We both end up exhausted, but I have a Treetop Village and another Tarfire, and he has only a Factory.

Game 2 (on the play): He has two Ironfoots; the first two-for-ones me, and the second halts both of my Treetops. Problem. He stabilizes behind a Brine and I can’t get any damage in, while he pumps out Factory tokens for the win.

Game 3 (on the play): I get in with Treetop and Gaddock Teeg. He plays Ironfoot and I Justice it. He tries to stem the bleeding with a morph, and I Tarfire it. He could draw it out for another couple turns with Venser, but I have Mana Tithe and end the game immediately.

Game 4 (on the play): I start by shooting an Ancestral with Riftsweeper, but he has a second. I kill two Ironfoots with a pair of Kavu Justices, which puts him way up on life. I play three Tarmogoyfs and he plays three Oblivion Rings. I play Troll Ascetic, he plays Wrath of God. Eventually we both end up exhausted again, but I have Treetop and a Tarfire and all he has is a Factory.

Game 5 (on the play): This one is very close. I get in some early Treetop beats when it is intercepted by Teferi. I have Gaddock and Riftsweeper holding off Wrath, so he Rings the Sweeper. I play Stoutarm and he Wraths. I play another Stoutarm and it sticks. His only answer is Vesuvan, though he’s holding another Vesuvan and a counter. I Ring the Vesuvan and attack for the win.

Game 6 (on the draw): I mull, he counters my only threat, and I draw all four Tarfires and a Fiery Justice. He draws Ancestral and two Teferis.

Game 7 (on the draw): I successfully hit two Ancestrals with Riftsweeper this game, we trade Oblivion Rings, and I once again end up ahead on card quality. I have a Troll Ascetic to his Teferi, but Tarfire finishes that encounter off in my favor. He tries to hold off the lethal Troll with repeated Factory activations, but I find a Tarmogoyf and put it away.

Game 8 (on the draw): Again it comes down to card quality. I get him down to nine with Stoutarms, but he uses Rings and Wraths to dispatch them. Eventually I get to the point where I can exactly lethal him through his three Ironfoots unless the one card in his hand is a topdecked Cryptic Command, in which case he can tap all my guys after I activate my Treetops and attack back for lethal post-combat. It’s Cryptic Command. Nice.

Game 9 (on the draw): I double-mulligan and he hits me with two Cryptic Commands on Dismiss mode. Not much coming back from that.

Game 10 (on the draw): He has a lot of cards in hand, so I keep throwing threats at him rather than using my Treetops. Eventually he gets out some blockers, but I smash through and knock him to one. It doesn’t matter that I can’t attack through next turn, as Brion can just throw a Treetop at him for the kill.

6-4 is not impressive out of context, but looking at the losses I took, two were from double mulligans (not much I can do to help those), one was from the opponent topdecking his one out in a one-turn window, and considering the opponent never took a double-mull… this matchup seems fine.

I’m thinking the Mana Tithes were a bad idea. They were poor in a number of situations here, and probably won’t be much better against the beatdown decks, and Oblivion Ring was awesome here. I think I was too hasty in taking it out; no matter how mediocre it was against Wafo-Tapa’s deck, I think it’s going to be so nuts against the rest of the format, I should keep it around.

So I definitely want -3 Mana Tithe, +2 Oblivion Ring. I have an open slot now.

What to do? A knee-jerk reflex of many inexperienced deck designers is to “fix” the list by going up to 4 copies of Gaddock Teeg or by turning something from a 4-of into a 3-of so I can have all four-ofs except for Gaddock Teeg, one 3-of and one 2-of, but that’s just silly. I want 24 lands, I want 3 Gaddock Teeg, and I want 4 of all the other cards, so I have to figure out what to do with the extra slot.

As Adrian Sullivan recently discussed, there are a lot of different things you can do with a one-of slot. In this case, I’m going to go with the “analog” — something like a fifth Brion Stoutarm, who I could use just a tad more of. I don’t get threshold very often, which is why I didn’t go with Mystic Enforcer in the first place, I don’t think Garruk is very exciting anymore since everyone started running countermagic and 3/4s out the wazoo, and the only double-color I’m set up to produce is Green. The drawback of Hunted Wumpus is too severe in this format, Galepowder Mage seems like too much of a vanilla 3/3 flying in a lot of matchups (no, I will not Blink your Shriekmaw/Mulldrifter/Epochrasite just so it can’t block this turn)…so I’m going to go with the most vanilla analog available: Brooding Saurian. He and Sporesower Thallid are about the vanilla-est 4/4s for 4 in the format, but I think the Saurian’s ability will be more relevant given Sower of Temptation.

Here’s the final list, then.

Next up is Ruel’s U/B.

Game 1 (on the play): I get him all the way down to 1 life, but he keeps bouncing all my stuff and keeping just ahead of the curve while dinging me with Finkel until he can Profane Command me out from eight.

Game 2 (on the play): He draws a lot of extra cards while creating chump blockers, but too many of them are lands. He can’t keep up with my Troll Ascetics, and eventually runs out of chumps.

Game 3 (on the play): His only removal spell is Damnation, which doesn’t do a whole lot against my two Treetop Villages. I eventually get a Tarmogoyf to stick around as well.

Game 4 (on the play): I get him down to 4, but he gets out an Ironfoot to stop my Treetop Village beats and starts going nuts with Mannequins and Shriekmaws all over my creatures. I never get another threat to stick, and am overwhelmed.

Game 5 (on the play): Yet again, I have him at six, but he just starts going nuts with Mannequins, making chump blockers and drawing cards with Mulldrifter, until he domes me out with a Profane Command.

Game 6 (on the draw): I knock him down to the single-digits in short order. He Mannequins back Shriekmaw once, but I don’t attack into it, and instead play Brion Stoutarm. He can’t kill it or race it in time, and I chuck some dudes at his face for the win.

Game 7 (on the draw): I draw a whole lot of lands and not many threats. I cycle through three Horizon Canopies and still cannot deal with his pair of Phyrexian Ironfoots beating me down.

Game 8 (on the draw): He plays three Shriekmaws and buys some of them back. Ouch.

Game 9 (on the draw): I think I have him with Gaddock and three Brions, but he draws Mouth to kill Gaddock and then plays two Mannequins to get back Shriekmaws for my Brions. I lose.

Game 10 (on the draw): I mulligan and draw one threat.


Oof. That’s just a downright awful matchup. Having never played against U/B Mannequin, I did not realize just what an absolute beast it was against creature decks.

All in all, I’m not so sure about this thing. Pickles seems to be in my favor, Guile is probably somewhat favorable since I revised the build, but Mannequin seems unsolvably awful. It’s not like they have one card that wrecks me—it’s their whole strategy. The deck is full of two-for-ones (or better), and while I can skate by on card quality against Pickles, Mannequin can literally draw three cards a turn while coming up with a chump blocker for every one of my threats until they clear my board with Shriekmaw recursion and kill me with evasive attackers.

Now, is it such a big deal that the deck loses to Mannequin? I’m not sure. I don’t think I can fix that matchup with my sideboard, nor am I sure how post-board games will go against Guile and Pickles. I also can’t really say how the deck will fare against other decks like Faeries and the like, but unless there’s demand for more Kavu Justice in this world (and by “in this world” I mean “in the forums), I’d have to say I’m awfully tempted by the challenge of beating Ruel’s deck and the other Blue ones.

If there’s one thing this whole experience has taught me, it’s that I really want to play Psionic Blast in this format. I’m not sure how to do it yet, but I’m interested in it. There were so many times when I cast Fiery Justice on Teferi or Phyrexian Ironfoot — using it as a Psionic Blast where my opponent got to gain 4 life instead of me losing two — which is just the worst deal in the world when I’m the beatdown. The fact that Justice couldn’t burn people out also cost me quite a few games.

All in all, I’d say I learned a lot about the top decks from this experience. It’s not quite as much as I would have learned from bashing them together, but I also gained some insight into the potential of Kavu Justice as a contender in this new format.

Next week’s a new week, though, and City Champs aren’t going anywhere. What’s your interest, Standard readers?

Let me know!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]

Bonus Section:

If I do try to go after Ruel’s deck next week, I may do so with something crazy. Something crazy along the lines of…

Regarding Gossamer Phantasm and Unstable Mutation: the reason it’s okay to play both in the same deck is a little piece of technology I came up with called “play it on something else.”