Exploring Wolf Run Black

If we were to play a Standard tournament next week, what key features should a deck possess in order to be successful? Here, Jon Agley tries to encompass those features in a new version of Wolf Run Ramp.

With Wolf Run Ramp/Red taking the all-important first-place slot at the final Magic: The Gathering Worlds tournament, our suspicions that it might be dying out as an archetype (in favor of Tokens and Mono-Black Infect) have been quelled. In fact, the winning deck, Iyanaga’s masterpiece, has a lot of different ways to interact with the creatures whose quick proliferation previously was problematic (say that five times fast!).

Whereas previous Wolf Run Ramp decks featured something like three copies of Slagstorm as protection against creature-based threats—meaning that a single Distress into a Whispering Specter equipped with Lashwrithe was “gg”—Iyanaga’s version runs three Slagstorm, four Galvanic Blast, and a single Shock, in addition to four copies of Inferno Titan, which are glad both to shoot down other creatures and to block creatures equipped with Sword of Feast and Famine.

We can’t metagame purely against Wolf Run Red this time, though, because there were a whopping four copies of Tempered Steel in the top 8, along with three other aggressive decks (making the record, for those of you counting at home, 7-1 in favor of aggressive strategies). We also should expect Patrick Chapin innovative Grixis deck, which made waves on Day 1, to begin appearing in greater numbers as the utility of dear Olivia becomes better understood.

So the question then becomes: where do we want to be now? If we were to play a Standard tournament next week, what key features should a deck possess in order to be successful?

Although Worlds only ended a few hours ago, I’ve begun tinkering with some concepts that appear to have some promise in a post-Worlds metagame. We need to be able to:

a) Engage effectively with decks that ramp into Titans (Primeval Titan and now Inferno Titan);

b) Answer threats bolstered by Kessig Wolf Run (typically Inkmoth Nexus);

c) Be prepared for highly aggressive strategies

d) Anticipate “off-the-radar” threats like Grixis Control.

Obviously, no deck will be able to accomplish all of these things with reasonable facility (the vaunted “my deck has a 100% win ratio against everything!” argument), but we can use these concepts as a starting point when we tweak a popular archetype.

The principle of Wolf Run Black also is derived from my experiences with Mono-Black Infect. Many of the cards that gave Infect a good matchup against Wolf Run Ramp (green or red) are independent of the need to infect our opponents.

In particular:

Using these concepts, we might examine the following preliminary list:

Normally, Curse of Death’s Hold struggles as a result of the fact that it costs five mana to put into play (this is one reason that it hasn’t seen a lot of play in control decks so far). In a deck that has reasonable amounts of acceleration (Solemn Simulacrum, Sphere of the Suns, and Rampant Growth), it is likely that this card can hit play on turn four, after a removal spell has been played.

The only question that remains is whether the utility of that effect is equal to the cost: it may be the case that even with all of the aggressive decks in the format, Curse of Death’s Hold simply isn’t powerful enough, though I recall playing a great B/W Journeyer’s Kite deck with Night of Soul’s Betrayal against the Kamigawa-era Dragons, and I’m hoping that history hasn’t become too clouded in my memory.

After watching Chapin smash face with Olivia Voldaren over the weekend, it seems like she is better positioned against the metagame than many other creatures. Although she occasionally will enter the battlefield on turn three or four (against a deck like Tempered Steel), it often is correct to wait until you can activate her first ability before playing her. She can both “machine gun” down smaller creatures and, later in the game, outright steal larger creatures (especially the Titans). While I haven’t yet played a lot of games with the deck (a limitation of the article deadline in conjunction with Worlds—just enough to get a preliminary sense of what works and doesn’t work), it seems as though Olivia is one of the best cards to draw late game against the mirror, which is exactly the kind of card that we want in our decks in the coming weeks. The tradeoff, though, is that we don’t have Inferno Titan, which can wreck opposing planeswalkers.

Much of our sideboard will be similar to the one played by Iyanaga, though adjusted for the modified metagame—especially the proliferation of Tempered Steel. Using the following sideboard as a baseline…

2 Ancient Grudge
4 Autumn’s Veil
1 Beast Within
1 Slagstorm
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
2 Thrun, the Last Troll
2 Tree of Redemption
1 Viridian Corrupter

Although Autumn’s Veil is amazing against control decks and is a card that I’ve supported in older iterations of this Standard format (see the article here), if Grixis is the only control deck that’s seeing widespread play—aside from a few U/W and U/B variants that appear to be doing well but that haven’t seen a lot of popular support—we probably don’t need to run a full set. In addition, we can’t really support Slagstorm with our manabase. This gives us room for a few copies of Creeping Corrosion, which, while a bit slow against Tempered Steel, is more likely to hit on turn three in this deck than in non-ramp decks (i.e., Bant Pod, in which it wasn’t as good an option for the sideboard).

Additionally, with nine ramp spells with a converted mana cost of two (Sphere of the Suns, Green Sun’s Zenith for Birds of Paradise, and Rampant Growth), we probably don’t need to run a copy of Viridian Emissary, allowing us to move a tutor target to the maindeck. Both Thrun, the Last Troll and Tree of Redemption are excellent role players in their respective matchups, but it is likely that Tree of Redemption will be used more frequently in the current aggro-heavy metagame, and so we might move a single copy to the maindeck.

This gives us the following list with which to begin testing for Standard:

Using these same principles, there is another very interesting deck that posted a 4-0 finish on Magic Online on Monday, November 21 (after Worlds results had been posted). This deck appears to apply many of the same principles that we used to develop Wolf Run Black.

This deck incorporates answers to the Titan cycle (Doom Blade/Victim of Night/Go for the Throat), a ramp component (Heartless Summoning/Solemn Simulacrum), and similar finishers (Inferno Titan and Olivia Voldaren, among others). It also contains important answers to aggressive strategies and Inkmoth Nexus by including four copies of Geistflame.

I tested this deck (though to a lesser extent than Wolf Run Black) in a few matches and found it to be surprisingly consistent, though it felt fairly slow when I didn’t have a Heartless Summoning. Borrowing a page from Iyanaga’s book, Sphere of the Suns looks like an excellent contender in this deck, which has few spells to play for two mana early in the game, especially on the play. We might consider prioritizing the other spells (especially the one-of spells, which frequently are seen when we have a Bloodgift Demon in play, but otherwise are rather inconsistent) and adding Sphere of the Suns and perhaps a fourth Heartless Summoning.

The build that I ended up playing in a few queues prioritizes the means to play creatures quickly over the additional removal spells, while still retaining four board sweepers and eight (twelve, counting flashback) targeted removal spells. While I beat traditional Wolf Run Ramp decks twice in a row (a third-turn Bloodgift Demon is very powerful, especially if they don’t have a Slagstorm as an answer immediately), I struggled against U/B Control. After allowing me to resolve a Heartless Summoning, my opponent played two copies of Mana Leak, and I felt completely out of the game.

As much as this deck wants a card like Inkmoth Nexus, rumor has it that 1/1 creatures lack synergy with Heartless Summoning. It may be the case that Stensia Bloodhall (one or two copies) would be excellent in this deck as a late-game plan, although that plan probably is too slow against Grixis. On the same note, I struggled against an opposing copy of Olivia Voldaren in another game because Doom Blade can’t target her, and she frequently outgrows Slagstorm before we can cast it. This puts us in a difficult position because Go for the Throat is a dangerous card to maindeck if Tempered Steel remains a significant portion of the metagame, but it’s infinitely better against Olivia while still dealing with Titans. If this deck ends up becoming a contender, significant focus should be placed on modifying the removal package as the metagame evolves.

All in all, this Standard format has continued to produce surprising results, and, controversial OP changes aside, I think that R&D did a hell of a job developing Innistrad for competitive play.