Feature Article – Grand Prix Oakland: Top 4 With Living End

SCG Open Richmond!

Friday, February 19th – Travis Woo first thought that the Living End Combo deck was relegated to the Extended Joke folder, but after a sterling Top 4 performance at Grand Prix: Oakland, he’s definitely changed his mind! Today, he talks about his tournament success…

Living End began its existence in a Magic Workstation folder dedicated to joke decks, such as Sasaya, Orochi Ascendant Combo, and Bubble Hulk Combo that won with 4 Hedron Crab, Sakura Tribe-Elder, and 4 Dryad Arbor. Turns out the Living End deck did not belong in that folder, and after quite a few hours of solo testing on Workstation I took it to a qualifier on January 2nd, and ended up missing Top 8 on breakers.

At couple of other guys actually showed up that day playing primitive versions of the deck, copied from a list floating around the casual room online. This bothered me, because there ended up being a lot of talk about the deck. It also surprised me, but there are only so many good combo decks floating around, and a lot of guys trying to find them.

I felt like most of the advantage of the deck was surprise, and I had probably missed my one shot. I bought a ticket to Oakland and put the deck, and Magic, on the shelf for the next month to focus on school. When the trip was a week away, I tried to cancel my ticket. I hadn’t prepared and didn’t want to blow a bunch of money just to get bad sleep for three nights, but after finding out it would cost $100 to cancel and that I could stay with a non-Magic-playing friend for free in El Cerrito (about a half hour from Oakland), I decided to head down.

I snooped around on Magic Online and noticed there wasn’t much hate for Dredge anymore, but by this time there were only a couple days left before the tournament, and with two midterms on Wednesday, I had no time to test. I wanted to play Dredge, but I wasn’t comfortable playing it without a coherent sideboard plan and lots of experience. I did have a strong Dredge list held over from Austin, and since it’s pretty radical, I’ll share it here:

There are a lot of differences here from the standard versions, and they are all powered by the playset of Dakmor Salvages. It gives you a ton of control over whether you draw a land or not, which makes Bloodghast much stronger, and sets you up a lot better for long games, because it means you can count on hitting three lands to go into Stinkweed mode. It also lets you play Chrome Mox, which makes the deck much more explosive, and lets you cut Life from the Loam for the fourth Dread Return, which I think is pretty vital

The cost of maxing on Dakmor Salvage means you can’t play Hedron Crab, but I don’t think it’s much of a loss. That card is a two-card combo with a fetchland, making it pretty inconsistent, and even when you have a fetchland, milling six does not always get the job done. Instead of the Crab you get to play Oona’s Prowler, which I love. It is also a creature, which is important, and being able to pitch Bridge from Below at instant speed is awesome. Also it beats down really hard.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a sideboard I was satisfied with for Dredge so I ended up sleeving up and registering my most recent version of Living End.

People have been critical of this deck from the beginning, and they have reason to be. You can expect to do about five damage to yourself, while goldfishing only turn 5 or 6. You’re vulnerable to almost everything: Meddling Mage, counterspells, any sort of graveyard hate, discard, Chalice of the Void, and you get all kinds of splash damage from cards as obscure as Circle of Protection Red.

However, the deck has plenty of things going for it. It is extremely consistent: you can expect to keep your opening seven, play Living End on the third turn, and play a creature every turn of the game starting on turn 5. The deck doesn’t stumble and has a great long game. If you don’t win early, most of your 19 lands will be thinned out by the mid game and you start to cast Jungle Weavers while your opponent floods out. You also get free wins from land destruction, have room for maindeck hate, and are extremely flexible when sideboarding. If you’re worried about burn, you can swap living end for Nourish. If you’re worried about Scapeshift, you can swap Living end for Glimpse the Unthinkable and add a Steam Vents (beware of Primal Command). You could even try adding Ionas and a couple Hypergenesis to the sideboard, but I wouldn’t recommend it as it’s a lot of cards for not that much impact, and a worse plan.

After sideboarding, you can always expect your opponent to have lots of disruption, but you can also expect them to mulligan aggressively and struggle against Kitchen Finks, Shriekmaw, and Maelstrom Pulse, and this is why the deck shines. If your opponent can’t answer Living End, they’ll lose, but if they invest too many resources trying to stop you they’ll lose to hardcast Monstrous Carabids.

Any sort of graveyard hate isn’t actually that much of a problem, because Living End is still a wrath against them. You can deal with Crypts and Relics with Ingot Chewer plus Violent Outburst, or just cycle some guys after they resolve it. Leyline is a bit of a problem, but you have Maelstrom Pulse and still have the option of beating them down or disrupting them with your cards the hard way. You have many answers for Meddling Mages and Canonists, and it’s easy to overload counterspells if you have a Violent Outburst. Targeted discard isn’t even that much of an issue because you cycle so much. The point is, this deck has a lot of hate against it, but you don’t roll over and die to it in the same way most linear combo decks do.

The best thing going for the deck (maybe not anymore) is surprise factor. Even if your opponent knows about the deck, it’s unlikely they’ve prepared their deck to beat yours, or that they’ve even played a single game against you. In those circumstances, no matter how good your opponent is, they will make mistakes. It’s just not possible to make the right plays when you don’t know what’s going on. No one knows what’s coming out of your sideboard or what removal to name with their second Meddling Mage. No one ever plays with your Falter and Trumpet Blast effects in mind, which means they screw up when planning for combat.

The deck is extremely flexible and skill rewarding, both in deck construction and games. There are lots of lines of play, and lots of room in the maindeck and sideboard for innovation. As for specific card choices, I’ve gotten a lot of questions, especially about Night of Souls’ Betrayal. The card was intended to be a huge bomb against Depths, Fae, and Elves, but in reality it is consistently one mana too slow. I don’t like the variance of Blood Moon, but I could get behind moving some card from the sideboard into those slots. Some people suggested Spike Feeder instead of Kitchen Finks and Krosan Grip instead of Maelstrom Pulse. However, the power of the deck is entirely due to its flexibility, and for that reason it’s important to think of the deck not as a combo deck, but as a mid-range aggro deck. Krosan Grip and Spike Feeder do not help you here. It’s probably worth making room for the fourth copies of Kitchen Finks and Maelstrom Pulse as well. Igneous Pouncer ended up getting axed because of NOSB, but I could see it finding it’s way back in.

Fulminator Mage specifically is a very important card. It’s huge in the Dark Depths matchup, and is very good against counter decks because it forces them to leave up one more land than they want to, while serving as a crucial target for Demonic Dread. It gives you free mana screw wins, it beats downs, and it chump blocks.

The good matchups aren’t as good as you think and the bad matchups aren’t as bad as you think, so you can expect to have some really awesome long games with lots of thinking. Anything that relies on creatures is good for you, but anything else that is fast is not. The big question mark is Dark Depths, and it’s not too bad. You can’t do much about a fast 20/20, but they can’t do much about Fulminator Mage or Ingot Chewer so it ends up being pretty even.

I won’t go to in-depth about sideboarding, because it’s probably the easiest deck I’ve played to sideboard with. It’s very intuitive as to what cards come out. Depending on the match-up, Fulminator Mage or Ingot Chewer are weak, and if not, Street Wraith is the most costly cycler. Depending on the degree of difficulty in ease and importance of resolving Living End, you can cut some number of cascaders. In a few extreme cases, you can cut them all. My sideboard was very general; most of the cards came in most of the time, based on the idea of improving the aggro control elements of the deck in preparation for the combo hate you’re going to be facing. Maelstrom Pulse and Shriekmaw work double duty here, clearing out troublesome Meddling Mages and such and picking off Knight of the Reliquaries and Tarmogoyfs for value.

I touched down in Oakland Friday morning, and spent the night at a high school basketball game and at dinner with a friend’s family. To be honest, I didn’t want to make Day 2 that badly, because I wanted a chance to explore the area on Sunday. My parents both went to Berkley, and it seemed like it would be a crime to spend my first time there in a convention center rather than learning what the bay was all about. I finally got to the site Saturday morning, and stumbled around the international district during my byes and got some Vietnamese sandwiches. From my experience the people were extremely friendly. I am aware of the murder statistic, but it says more about gang violence than the actual safety of the city.

The first day ended up being really easy. I played against a lot of Zoo, and got a lot of free wins. Either they scooped to Living End, didn’t cast any spells thanks to Fulminator Mage, or mulliganned into oblivion. There were occasionally long and interesting games, but it’s usually easy to win those on inevitability thanks to your late game deck composition. I ended up picking up my only loss to Joby Parrish, who seemed like quite a nice guy, and also had an old JSS shirt from Baltimore that I also owned.

Day 1 went something like this:

Zoo: 2-0
Dark Foundry: 2-0
UW Thopters: 2-0
Living End: 2-1
Mono Black Aggro: 2-0

I fought through a lot of Negates and Meddling Mages, but that’s about it. It was a perfect metagame for this deck, as the only real hate people had in their sideboards were Leyline of the Voids, which I didn’t bump into until later.

At 8-1, I had to change my plans, so rather than BARTing out to El Cerrito, I went out to dinner with some Portland players at a bar/restaurant a block off site. The service was terrible. It took forever for us to be helped, they didn’t provide us for water for a long time, and never gave us a pitcher that we asked for, among other things. James Nguyen, one of the Portlanders, was bordering on belligerently drunk, and stole all kinds of silverware and salt and pepper dispensers in retribution. I ended up crashing with James on site, and stayed up for a bit talking to him until he fell asleep literally in the middle of a story I was telling. Sorry to the guy who ended up sleeping on the bed next to me: I remember waking up in the middle of the night with 100% of the only blanket. My bad. The next day I woke up at 8am without an alarm because of my nervous excitement, and after purchasing a pricy continental breakfast, I was ready to battle.

I started off by playing against a Bant player who said I was his worst possible matchup, which was a continuing theme of the weekend. It was easy, and I advanced to 9-1. Next I played against Punishing Scapeshift splashing White, which was pretty slow and had no way to answer Living End, Fulminator Mage, or Thought Hemorrhage. It ended up taking forever for me to finish him off because of three Kitchen Finks on his side, which came in and out of play numerous times.

At 10-1 I was paired against my boy Cedric Phillips, with Dredge. From the several tournaments I’ve seen him at, he’s been extremely friendly (which is good for half of my respect), and entertaining (which is good for the other 50%). But I know that in a match he’s all business, so I’m expecting a good one. I first encountered him on my run at Grand Prix: Seattle, where his assumption that I was playing Seismic Swans set him up to be destroyed by the Wraths out of my land destruction deck. Little did he know that I had another treat in store for him in the form of Yixlid Jailer, and he could expect to be gotten again. In the first game, his first couple dredges hit everything he needed except for more dredgers and Dread Return. He ended up in draw step mode, and I sat and let his Narcomoebas beat me down until I could remove his Bridges with Ingot Chewer and set up a massive Living End, which I know would give him some Rusalkas and an Iona. Thanks to Fulminator Mage, which kept him off Rusalka mana and Bridge from Below, and Jungle Weaver, which let me survive a potential Iona attack, I was able to win the first game.

I boarded in everything but Night of Souls’ Betrayal, and cut Ingot Chewers, Fulminator Mages, Living End, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, and maybe one cycler. In retrospect Night of Souls’ Betrayal might be better than Kitchen Finks here, especially considering he boarded out his Bridges. My draw in the second game that included Shriekmaw, Dread Return (into Yixlid Jailer) and Thought Hemorrhage seemed ridiculous, but apparently Dredge can play Iona on turn 3. Whoops. In the final game, Ced kept a slow hand with a couple Thoughtseizes. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t keep me from drawing a Violent Outburst, which I played on the third turn. He was VERY surprised when my flipping revealed Yixlid Jailer, but not as surprised as when he found out that Street Wraith has Swampwalk several turns later. His plan of hard-casting Dread Return on Iona was taking him forever to assemble, and Street Wraith dropped his life three points at a time, just before he could finally get in with the 7/7.

Again, this is the advantage of the rogue deck. If Cedric had known what to expect he would have boarded in his Darkblasts. For this reason, I don’t really expect too many people to succeed with this deck, and they’ll probably attribute it to the deck being bad and me getting lucky. Wrong.

At 11-1 I knew I was probably back on the tour, and could even start to reasonably expect Top 8, assuming everything didn’t fall to pieces. Unfortunately I picked up another loss next round to Matt Nass’s Elf deck. In this match I learned that the difference between 3 mana and 4 mana is not 1 mana, but 5 million mana. Night of Souls’ Betrayal just costs way too much. I did manage to pick up one game, thanks to Matt conceding to a non-lethal attack. I swear I didn’t do anything shady, it was just bad math on his part. In the first game I didn’t draw a cascader and was dead before I could play the NOSB in hand, and in the third game I missed my third land drop for a couple of turns.

Next round was potentially my last win-and-in round. My opponent: Tomahiro Saito. I wasn’t happy about this pairing because he was playing Hypergenesis (which is rough if he knows what’s going on), and he’s supposedly really good. His reputation preceded him; generally when I stare down opponents they look away after a while, but Saito was an exception. For the two minutes of shuffling our eyes were locked. His eyes gave away the fact that he didn’t know what I was playing, and I knew I could take advantage of this to sculpt a way to win the first game.

The plan was to wait for him to go all in on a single Hypergenesis, and come over the top with Living End. This meant that I couldn’t cycle early game for fear of alerting him, and thus my Living End would have to be small. Fortunately, the lands I drew were perfect for confusing him. I was able to lead with Stomping Ground and two Forests, which might represent a bad draw from Punishing Scapeshift. When he played Thirst For Knowledge at the end of my turn and discarded a land and a Hypergenesis, and not creatures, I knew I had him. He waited until my fourth upkeep and went for it. His Hypergenesis put Angel of Despair, Terastadon, and Oblivion Ring into play, to match my now four lands and Jungle Weaver. He could have done all kinds of sick things to me at this point, but instead he stacked Angel of Despair on one land, Terastadon targeting one of my lands, one of his lands, and Oblivion Ring, and finally Oblivion Ring targeting Jungle Weaver. This was a pretty hilarious misplay, as he could have gotten Terastadon into play twice, or at the very least permanently exiled my Jungle Weaver. Regardless, the important blunder was letting me keep two lands going into my main phase, but unfortunately I didn’t have Red mana to punish him right away. I took advantage of his other misplay by using Jungle Weaver to chump block for a turn while I land-cycled for Red. This gave me the opportunity to crush him with Living End when I untapped, and I took the first game. He was pretty visibly upset, and kept slapping himself in the face, which I can’t say was disappointing.

The matchup might get a little better after sideboarding thanks to Thought Hemorrhage, but it would be a struggle because he now knew what was going on and had Leylines. In the second game my worries about the matchup were realized. I was forced to Living End his first Hypergenesis, but he had enough gas to go off again, and I was wrecked. We only had a couple minutes left for the decider, and it was anticlimactic as the difference in consistency between our decks became apparent. I kept, and Saito began to mulligan, hoping to get a good mix of creatures, lands, and cascaders, hopefully with a Leyline thrown in. He never found a second land, and the match was mine.

I wish I could articulate the feeling of accomplishment I felt at that moment. It wasn’t like Top 8ing (or even winning) a PTQ. After fifteen years and 75% of my life playing Magic, I’d finally arrived. This is the reason I had been playing in tournaments for all this time. I finally had a shot on the big stage. I vowed to try my hardest to win the event, but if I didn’t? Who cares! If I’m not happy Top 8ing out of 800 people, I will never be happy playing Magic. I wanted to win, but if I didn’t, whatever.

After drawing with Adam Yurchick and shaking his hand for an intentional draw well played, I took a break to eat a foot-long cold-cut combo. In terms of calories per dollar, it has the second highest ratio on the Subway menu, only behind the meatball, of which I’m not really a fan.

Anyway, in the Top 8 I play against Patrick Cox, and before the match my friend Tim kept trying to text me cards in his deck to watch out for, but I knew I would get to look at his deck before the match anyway, so I turned my phone off. The legality of the texts was questionable, but the intention was nice. Thanks a lot Tim, but if I had somehow gotten into trouble I would not have been happy. So Patrick is playing Zoo, and game 1 he is on the play-five-creatures-by-turn-3 plan, and I’m on the Living End plan. Awkward. Game 2 he is on the mulligan-to-five plan. I hardcast a Jungle Weaver on turn 5 that game, thanks to a couple of Paths. Zoo is generally pretty easy, but when they have to mulligan a couple of times it becomes a joke.

Saito lost to Yurchick in the quarters, so I was to be facing Dark Depths, not Hypergenesis. This match was covered on the Mothership, and I would link it, except the coverage missed the most important play of the match. On the second turn of the game, Yurchick, on the play, played an Urborg, and tapped it and his Tolaria West to play Hexmage. This meant that when he played Dark Depths on turn 3, I would have to both draw Violent Outburst right then, and keep three mana open for the rest of the game or lose. In short, my goose was cooked. Except, instead of playing his Urborg he played a River of Tears by mistake, which meant he had to take Hexmage back. As a consequence, he wouldn’t be able to assemble Hexmage and Depths until the fourth turn, which gave me time to play a Fulminator Mage and lock up the game. After I resolved a Living End the next turn, he was facing down a lot of monsters, and was forced to Slaughter Pact in an attempt to stay alive. I had all kinds of ways to win this game, but the Pact trigger made things much simpler after I played a second Fulminator Mage and put him on two lands.

The second game Yurchick led off with a Leyline and a Thoughtseize, then followed up with a Chalice and a 20/20 by the fourth turn. The third game was more of the same. He had a turn 2 20/20 and I wasn’t able to punish him with Violent Outburst. After the game, a spectator asked him why he had gone for it then and he replied that I had no outs. This is the extreme benefit of playing a rogue deck. Even in the Top 8 my opponents didn’t know what was going on.

Would I recommend this deck in a PTQ? Maybe… it is pretty fun after all. I wouldn’t say it’s the best deck, but it is definitely a real deck that people should be worried about. It’s proactive, aggressive, and flexible, which is an extremely rare combination. It may be vulnerable to hate, but it’s particularly resilient. There are so many decisions by the mid game. Practically all of your cards are split cards; you can choose to evoke, cycle, or hardcast. Violent Outburst is a Trumpet Blast/Living End split card, and Demonic Dread is a Falter/Living End split card. Maelstrom Pulse and Shriekmaw have all kinds of uses.

All in all, it was a great weekend for me, and a great weekend for the Magic world. Every time I count Extended out, a bunch of new decks crop up. It really is a wide-open format.

Anyway, that is how I Top 8ed my first Grand Prix. Look for me in San Juan. This will be my third time on the Pro Tour, and hopefully the old adage “third time’s the charm” will ring true.

Travis Woo