Several times in the past, I’ve seen reports about how “I went 7-2, so not Top 8 but pretty darn good!” I’ve always felt this was disingenuous, because it belies where you got your second loss. That’s very relevant, because as soon as you are in the X-2 bracket the tournament completely changes.
Once in the 0-2 bracket, the most die-hard competitors, who were in the tournament to win it and for practically no other reason, will drop, eliminating themselves from your pool of possible opponents. Good players who brought an unusual deck and felt it just had not worked out will drop. Competitive players (good or not) who felt victimized by bad draws and just want out of the tournament will also drop.
Far less often will the casual or semi-competitive Magician drop. They may have shown up to win it, but even if that’s no longer within reach, they still take pleasure in just battling, damn it, and they are going to battle until they get their money’s worth. Regardless of whether this makes you think more or less of them, this is still how it is; the average competitiveness of your opponents decreases significantly when the most die-hard competitors drop, while the ones who just love a good battle do not.
Simply put, there’s a big difference between starting off 0-2 before rattling off seven wins and rattling off seven wins before losing two in a row to miss out on Top 8.
Why do I mention this? To put in perspective that when I sat down for my ggslive.com feature match at 6-1 in St. Louis, playing against eventual finalist Justin Souza for Top 8 in the Standard portion, then promptly lost to miss the cut at the last possible minute, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating this deck from the position of someone who started off 0-2 and breezed his way past a series of Mono-Blue homebrews on the way to his final record. As a matter of fact, at that point I had beaten one U/W and five Jund decks on the way to playing for Top 8.
Here’s what I played.
This ain’t your granddaddy’s Blue deck. No creatures main. No planeswalkers main. No countermagic anywhere in the list.
Really, playing this thing reminds me most of old-school Odyssey-era Standard Mono Black Control, for those of you who were around. That deck had a curve that went something like Innocent Blood, Chainer’s Edict, Rancid Earth, Mutilate, and so on, culminating in Mind Sludge, with Diabolic Tutor and Skeletal Scrying fueling the whole progression.
Replace Innocent Blood with Wretched Banquet, Chainer’s Edict with Terminate, Rancid Earth with Spreading Seas, Mutilate with Earthquake, Skeletal Scrying with Mind Spring, and Mind Sludge with Cruel Ultimatum, and you can see “a few” similarities with this list.
I am running no countermagic because I want my games to play like Odyssey Block MBC did: like a metronome. You play a guy, I kill it. You play a guy, I kill it. You play a couple guys, I Earthquake them. You play a guy, I kill it. Reload with Mind Spring, leaving mana open for another removal spell if need be. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, until – hey, look at that! The extra cards I’ve been drawing have added up, and now I have Cruel Ultimatum and the mana to cast it. That’s how I want every game to go against creature decks.
When this is the plan, countermagic is very clunky. With an all-removal suite of answers, I can keep up with my opponent’s drops because after I tap out for Earthquake, Mind Spring, Cruel Ultimatum, or even just a Spreading Seas, all of my answers are still good after I untap. How awful is it to tap out to Earthquake away Jund’s board only to watch them untap and drop a Putrid Leech for which Essence Scatter was my only answer? I wouldn’t know, because I’m playing Wretched Banquet instead. It’s simply not a problem. I can tap out whenever I need to, and the worst that can happen is that my opponent plays a Haste guy and I take an extra beat I could have avoided had I left mana up.
Now you might be wondering how, with no countermagic, I handle that bane of all control decks, Blightning. Here is the secret: when my opponent casts Blightning, I discard two cards and go down three life. Then next turn I keep doing what I have been doing, and generally speaking pretty soon I have won.
See, when my opponent hardcasts Blightning, that means he did not cast a creature that turn. So say I discard a Terminate and something else. Was that so much worse than him just playing a creature and my Terminating it? It was worse, sure – I discarded something – but did I actually need that extra card? Often enough, there is some card in your hand (a land, a second Ultimatum, a second Earthquake, etc.) that you can be confident you will not need, and since Blightning is not a random discard spell, you will always pitch the absolute worst card in your hand alongside (usually) a removal spell.
Blightning from a Bloodbraid Elf is better, but again, not a ton better than, say, Bloodbraid into another creature. In the latter case I lose two removal spells (usually), whereas in the former I lose, say, two removal spells plus the worst card in my hand.
Now obviously there are only so many times you can pitch the worst card in your hand before you run out of cards. Mind Spring is a huge help with this, and with its help I actually tend to beat even double-Blightning draws most often. I almost never beat the triple-Blightning draws, or the double-Bloodbraid-into-Blightning draws (although I actually managed to Mind Spring out a win against a triple Blightning draw, two of which were off Bloodbraids, in St. Louis), but then again, who does beat those draws on any kind of regular basis?
Of course, one consequence of running all creature removal and no countermagic is that I have a lot of dead cards against a control deck that is actually running countermagic, as they can simply answer my only relevant big spell and then beat me with Jwar Isle, a threat against which my only answer is to resolve Cruel Ultimatum. In general, Island decks are this deck’s biggest concern, but thankfully they are both beatable (if unfavorable) and represent only a small chunk of the metagame.
Why Play This?
It’s pretty simple: you beat Boros Bushwhacker and all the midrange decks. Jund? Beat it. Boros Bushwhacker? Beat it. Naya? Beat it. Bant? Beat it. Vampires? Beat it. Mono-White Tokens? Beat it. Eldrazi Green? Beat it.
These aren’t the only decks in the format, certainly, and you do have your problem matchups – Mono Red, Barely Boros, other Grixis decks, and UWR are tough, and Turbo Fog and Unearth are unwinnable – but beating the most popular deck (Jund) and the second-most-popular (Boros), along with most of the other contenders, is far from a poor place to be in this format.
Another reason to play this is that it’s highly consistent. It’s full of cantrips, including the incredible Ponder alongside a healthy eight fetchlands, and maxes out on copies of nearly all of its cards.
I have not tried out the Grixis decks that made Top 8 in St. Louis, but I have to say, they certainly look like Jund and Boros would give them some serious trouble. If you are interested in Grixis but keep having that sort of problem in your testing, I suggest giving this a try instead.
Updating the Deck
So why did I play Hedron Crabs in St. Louis? Basically I knew I wanted 4 Ruinblaster, 4 Malakir Bloodwitch (if you have not had the opportunity to summon this guy against a White deck in this environment, you are in for a treat), and 3 Sorin Markov for the Jund and Boros matchups (among others), which left me with four remaining slots with which to take on the rest of the metagame. I expected a lot more Turbo Fog than actually showed up at St. Louis, so I decided to devote my remaining four slots to that matchup.
Game 1 against Turbo Fog, I have no shot whatsoever. I have eight total threats – Cruel and Earthquake – which deal damage once, in increments of 5-10, against a deck that never deals itself damage and plays 4 Flashfreeze, 2 Sunspring Expedition, and 4 Kabira Crossroads. Maybe “no shot whatsoever” is being generous.
I was considering maindecking one Telemin Performance, but it would be such a dead draw against everything else, I could not justify it. Particularly given that Quest for Ancient Secrets may now become a common maindeck card in Turbo Fog, it seems even less reasonable now.
Post-board, my plan was to Crab them out. If they do not have Quest (which I figured many of them wouldn’t, since a minority of Turbo Fog decks that did well at States boarded it – and regardless, they certainly would not think to bring it in for Game 2), Crab will easily deck them faster than they deck me. When their only answer to it is Day of Judgment, all I have to do is use Into the Roil or hoard fetchlands (play a Tarn or Expanse or two and do not crack them, then play a Crab or two and crack them all at once) and they’ll deck first.
Now these days, I expect Quest will be too common for this plan to work out, and Turbo Fog seems to be on the decline, so I would suggest removing Crabs from the board for something else. Options include:
Banefire is quite good in the control mirror, as it answers Ajani Vengeant as well as Baneslayer Angel and is an uncounterable win condition provided you can get the opponent down to around 10 (e.g. by resolving Sorin Markov or by tapping out for Earthquake when the opponent drops a Jwar Isle or something), although once again the Swerves that appeared in the St. Louis Top 8 are concerning.
Pithing Needle is reasonable against Ajani (though UWR will probably keep in O-Rings for Sorin Markov anyway), useful against Unearth because you can name Extractor Demon, and decent against Turbo Fog because you can name Jace (not that that will save you in that matchup). I don’t like this option for the same reason I don’t like Duress – it’s not really going to break any matchup wide open; usually it’s just going to slow them down.
Thought Hemorrhage fills the same role as Pithing Needle does against Unearth, is weak against Turbo Fog, and is strong in the control mirror if you can resolve it – but since it’s soft to Flashfreeze, Negate, and Swerve, resolving it seems optimistic. On the other hand, it is a must-counter, so it does help overwhelm the opponent’s countermagic. Like Duress, it is also quite good against Vampires as an answer to Mind Sludge and Bloodghast.
For this deck, I think probably 4 Thought Hemorrhage is best. It gives a nice boost to the Vampires matchup, makes Unearth potentially winnable, and is strong enough to be a must-counter against other control decks. I don’t think any of the alternatives pull as much weight.
Game 1 is great for you, as Jund is brimming with dead cards and you are laser-focused on killing every one of the relatively few threats they have. Even better, it’s difficult for a Jund player to tell (even now that the list is known) if you are traditional Grixis or Brute Force, so they will still need to play around countermagic you are not playing until they can be sure. I am sure I got some bonus mileage out of this fact against the absurd quantity of Jund opponents I faced at St. Louis.
However, post-board they will have traded their dead cards for monsters like Duress and Thought Hemorrhage, so things get a lot better for them. This sideboard plan is not amazing, but it is has been the most successful one I’ve found. It was around 50-50 in testing, but I managed a 7-2 post-board record against Jund in St. Louis, so your mileage may vary – especially if opponents are not prepared.
The main challenge is that Duress and Thought Hemorrhage make it much harder to hit a Cruel, since the opponent can just cast either one the turn before you are about to Cruel and knock out your win condition at the eleventh hour. Now suddenly you need to topdeck a Cruel (or find an alternate path to victory, in the case of Hemorrhage) or else you cannot win, and worse, you are spending your seventh turn frantically casting draw magic rather than answering whatever is on the table while drawing cards with an Ultimatum.
Every other plan I have tried – Jwar Isle, Duress, Ob Nixilis, Deathmark, Anathemancer, Planeswalkers, etc. – has been unable to handle the combination of Duress and Thought Hemorrhage. None of the alternate finishers or support cards could actually put away a Jund deck that had excised all of its dead cards without the additional lifegain and card advantage provided by Cruel Ultimatum. The only games I found myself winning were the ones where Jund did not draw enough Duresses and/or Thought Hemorrhages to stop me, or the ones where they got manascrewed.
Thus, my goal became to induce as many situations as possible where the opponent loses to manascrew, while still preserving the same basic gameplan of killing whatever dudes they play followed by Cruel Ultimatum (so that I still win the games where they don’t draw enough copies of Duress and/or Thought Hemorrhage). I chose Ruinblaster over Convincing Mirage both because of the warm body, the ability to hinder Broodmate Dragon that comes with actually destroying a land, and the fact that I can rebuy him with Into the Roil.
As it turns out, between the two scenarios (Jund gets manascrewed or doesn’t draw enough Duresses/Hemorrhages), you can squeak out a coinflip out of the post-board matchup. This is the basic reason I am okay with running this deck: if I am playing Jund itself, most likely I am looking at a coinflip post-board in the mirror anyway, so any deck that can claim an actively strong game 1 against Jund and a coinflip post-board appeals to me from a metagaming perspective. (Even better, some players have been cutting Duress and/or Thought Hemorrhage from their boards for cards better suited for the mirror, e.g. Mind Rot.)
Besides blowing up lands, Goblin Ruinblaster provides a janky but credible way to finish the game if your Cruels are Hemorrhaged away. It’s hardly a consistent finisher, but I have won a few games with Ruinblaster backed up by Earthquake – in fact, I used just such a strategy to take one of my matches in St. Louis after a Jund opponent had Hemorrhaged out my Ultimatums.
Try not to expose yourself to opposing Ruinblasters if you can avoid it; some hands can make basic land drops (or fetchlands) all the way up to the five mana mark (and sometimes past it), so lead with basics for as long as you can in order to force the opponent into playing Ruinblaster when he does not want to. (And possibly after your own Ruinblasters have removed his second Red source – always target the Red sources against Jund.)
At first I was taking out Wretched Banquets instead of Lightning Bolts out of respect for Stag, Haste guys, and Thrinax, but when I did that I was losing too many games to Putrid Leech. If the opponent just declines to pump it when attacking into your untapped Red mana, Lightning Bolt is totally inadequate; every time you tap your Red you will get punched for four, and unless you have a Terminate you will pretty much never kill the thing before it has done a game-winning amount of damage.
That said, if an opponent who is always pumping his Leeches into your untapped Red boards in Stags, feel free to leave in the Bolts instead of the Banquets.
In game 1, try to favor spending Sorcery-speed removal when you can, saving the Instant-speed stuff for hasty post-Ranger Bushwhacker attacks. Also try to blow Terminates when you have two mana to spare and both a Lightning Bolt and Terminate in hand, as Lightning Bolt is basically strictly better in game one and worth holding onto for mana efficiency later on.
The default plan is to go for the opponent’s White sources with Spreading Seas to keep him off Elspeth mana, although if he has only one Red source, or if your hand is not good at handling a Bushwhacker strike for whatever reason (it’s all Wretched Banquets and Earthquakes, say) then feel free to go for the Red and try to keep him off RR.
The reason for this boarding plan is that Cruel is simply too slow against Manabarbs and can actually lose to a resolved Elspeth when you have to use your Into the Roils on Manabarbs. Sorin Markov and Malakir Bloodwitch are both excellent against either of these cards, are capable finishers in their own right, and are cheaper than Cruel and Mind Spring to boot.
Post-board you have to watch out for Harm’s Way, so you reverse your Bolt-Terminate favoring, and try to expend Bolts whenever the opponent cannot blow you out with a Harm’s Way – save the Terminates for a time when you may not be able to play around Harm’s Way. When casting Earthquake into an open White, consider the pros and cons of casting it for more than you theoretically need, so that you can overpower a Harm’s Way and make sure the creatures actually die.
Also try to save your Into the Roils for Manabarbs; Bloodwitch and Sorin are the keys to beating Barbs, so ideally you want to Roil (usually without kicker, to save on life) the Enchantment on the opponent’s end step so you can untap and drop Bloodwitch or Planeswalker without Lava Axing yourself. Also remember that if you drop to 5 life or lower with Manabarbs out, you basically cannot win anymore, and so your goal becomes Earthquaking both players out to cause a draw.
This matchup is among the easiest you have. Their only really threatening card is Ajani, as everything else is just dorks that die easily to your removal. They have no countermagic, and their only way to stop a Cruel is to mise with Ajani.
Unlike against Boros, Ranger of Eos will not generally result in any Haste guys attacking you, so it most often makes sense to save Earthquakes for their Ranger offspring instead of stockpiling Instant-speed removal as you would against a Bushwhacker.
I am taking out Wretched Banquet instead of Lightning Bolt out of respect for Stag and Ajani; all the scary things that Banquet might kill (but Bolt will not) are trumped by Bloodwitch, and Bolt’s ability to stave off an Ajani ultimate is very strong.
Remember that Ajani can Lightning Helix you as well as try to Geddon you; if you Into the Roil it to keep the opponent from blowing up your lands, remember that when he replays it, there is a good chance he will just start shooting you with it the second time around.
The biggest threat here is Emeria Angel in game 1 and Luminarch Ascension in game 2. Bolts stay in not only because of Sable Stag, but also because they can stave off Ascension for a turn if it is about to go nuclear. Fortunately, between Bolt, Earthquake, bounce, and Bloodwitch (as well as the fact that playing an early Ascension means they are not playing a guy that turn), I have almost always beaten Luminarch Ascension from these decks.
There is an unfortunate risk associated with bringing in Bloodwitch against Bant, and that is that the opponent will Mind Control it. However, you can reverse the blowout with Into the Roil (he steals the Bloodwitch, you either bounce it so you can replay it next turn or bounce the Mind Control if it’s more important to block and kill an incoming attacker), so absolutely try to save those as answers to Mind Control if possible.
Yeah, without Crabs this matchup is just terrible. My advice is to avoid pairing against it.
I take out Cruel because assembling BBB against this deck, particularly in conjunction with RR, is absurdly difficult. Instead I am maxing out on ways to attack the opponent’s manabase along with easy-to-cast threats. I suggest keeping in Lightning Bolt over Terminate both because of Ajani and because burning the opponent out is so important. You want to strike at his life total as fast and hard as you can, because he has inevitability via Jwar Isle and you do not.
Speaking of Jwar Isle, he is the best thing to name with Thought Hemorrhage if a Jwar will beat you, but otherwise I would just try to use it as a Cabal Therapy; a hit comes with not only card advantage but damage, and if you can score the six-damage “Blightning” you should be in very good shape.
Since you do not have countermagic and they do, you must be the aggressor. If you wait around, eventually they will play a Sphinx or something with counter backup and you will be done; don’t let the game drag on that long. You might think this puts you in an impossible situation – you’re going to run out your Cruels and just be like “please don’t have the counter!” and of course they’re always going to have it – but in reality, they often simply don’t have it and you just win.
It’s hardly a skill-maximizing way to play a control mirror (compared to the usual countermagic dance), but mathematically it will win you the most games. I sat down for some test games against a friend playing UWR who went into the set suggesting that “you can’t win, right?” and being surprised when we ended up splitting the games. You’d be surprised how much tougher it is to play from their perspective, unable to tap out for Mind Spring because you will Cruel them if they do, whereas you are free to tap out for whatever you want without blanking any of the cards in your hand.
The most critical card from URW is Ajani. Try as hard as you can not to let the opponent untap with Ajani out, because once he can defend it with Flashfreeze, you are in huge trouble. It is generally worth it to Earthquake for a few up front just to knock Ajani down and buy some turns while you still can, even if doing so will not take him out altogether. Remember that he is going to accumulate Loyalty counters at least as quickly as you can make land drops, so waiting will not likely make your Earthquake any better against him.
The other planeswalkers, Jace and Elspeth, are less threatening, but still worth answering if you can. With Jace in particular, remember that the opponent may just be holding another; if the burn you are holding has a reasonable shot at killing the opponent unless you blow it on Jace, remember that you may not actually be buying yourself anything by shooting the planeswalker.
It’s important to be okay with drawing the game with Earthquake. If you are okay with that outcome (you especially should be in game 1 – you are boarding in 15 cards!) then once the game drags on you will have enough mana that Quake can become a must-counter. If you do not do this you have only the 4 Cruels, and it can be very bad for you if they just happen to have drawn three hard counters for Ultimatum.
Don’t worry about boarding out so many Terminates against a Baneslayer deck. Since they can’t stop a Bloodwitch except with Day of Judgment, Bloodwitch is generally a fine answer, and besides you still have Into the Roil (into Thought Hemorrhage, if necessary) and Cruel Ultimatum as answers.
If you resolve Hemorrhage, the best cards to name are usually Flashfreeze (if you caught the opponent tapped out, so he can’t stop your future threats) or Jwar Isle (which is difficult to deal with once resolved).
This is just going to be a tough matchup, no two ways about it; you both have Cruel Ultimatum, but they can counter yours. As with UW and UWR, play aggressively, and don’t be afraid to tap out.
Game 1 is extraordinarily difficult; your only real hope is to draw a ton of Spreading Seas. If they start going off, try to scoop quickly so that you will have time for games 2 and 3.
Post-board is less awful, but still bad. It is all about two things: attacking Crypt of Agadeem, and resolving Thought Hemorrhage. Definitely name Extractor Demon first, followed by whatever their next-scariest Unearth guy if you resolve another Hemorrhage.
Save your Ruinblasters (and Roils) and Spreading Seas exclusively for Crypt. Don’t try to get cute and manascrew the opponent; it is not worth it. Just make him show you more Crypts than you have answers to Crypt, bounce Crypts to buy a turn, and dig like crazy to find a Hemorrhage.
The two critical cards here are Mind Sludge and Bloodghast. The key to beating Mind Sludge is to keep the board clear of creatures – absolutely Earthquake away that Hexmage, and don’t think twice about it – so that when Sludge resolves, it effectively puts both players in topdeck mode. Yes, the Vampires player will have a leg up because he will almost certainly have a Bloodwitch or Nocturnus left in his hand, but your topdecks are much better – stuff like Mind Spring and Cruel Ultimatum, and Ponder, Spreading Seas, and Into the Roil to dig for it – so Sludge is definitely beatable as long as you play right.
Bloodghast is the real killer in this matchup; almost all of their wins against you will be due to Bloodghast. Because of this, be very careful about what you name with Thought Hemorrhage. Mind Sludge is a tempting target, but it is more important to get rid of the Bloodghasts, as it is simply much easier to topdeck your way into beating a Mind Sludge than it is to grind out a win against Bloodghast.
Having said that, once Mind Sludge is out of the picture, digging up a second Hemorrhage is a goal you can reach much more easily, so if you are only facing down one Ghast and think you have enough removal to keep your life total afloat long enough to find a second Hemorrhage, by all means name Mind Sludge.
Sorin comes in for Earthquake both because Earthquake is kind of weak in this matchup (rarely is it better than a one-for-one that damages you) and because Sorin is at once good (fantastic against Bloodghast, in fact) and a finisher to help compensate for the lost Quakes.
In this matchup Bloodwitch is just a big chump blocker (and a tiny Drain Life) to replace the terrible Earthquakes. Don’t worry about Act of Treason; it isn’t even that good on Bloodwitch – they get to smack you for four, but since you gained one when he hit the table, it’s like they paid three mana to deal you three. Big whoop.
This is only a big deal when you were relying on Bloodwitch as a blocker, but once they’ve spent three mana in their main phase, Ball Lightning, Elemental Appeal, and Hell’s Thunder become very unlikely; the main things you have to worry about are Goblin Guide and a Zektar Shrine Expedition that was already on the table. Keep those cards in mind when deciding, say, whether to play a Bloodwitch at the five-mana mark versus waiting until the six-mana mark so that you can keep Lightning Bolt mana up in case of Act of Treason.
I don’t bring in Sorin here because he costs too much for what he does at that point in the game. It’s really critical that you take out early sources of recurring damage like Goblin Guide and Plated Geopede, which Wretched Banquet accomplishes without depleting your stores of instant-speed answers to the heavy hitters.
All too often, the turn I cast Sorin was the last turn of the game, as I would then take a huge hit because I tapped out, and would be burned out before I could untap and activate him again. Better to just leave up the maximum defenses against Ball Lightning and its ilk, then to untap and Cruel.
Remember that Into the Roil just kills an unearthed creature, and do not be afraid to use it without Kicker if doing so will save you some life.
For those of you inclined to game with Cruel Ultimatum in Standard, or perhaps just sick of losing to Jund, I absolutely endorse this deck. I think it’s well-positioned, has a ton of great matchups, and its auto-loss matchups are few and far between.
Give it a shot!