Feature Article – Rembrandt: Revolutionizing Standard Blue

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Tuesday, October 20th – The downfall of Blue in Standard is highly publicized. Cryptic Command is gone, and people are still mourning its departure. However, Richard Feldman has been searching for a worthy Blue deck in the new metagame… and in finding it, he believes he’s broken the format. Intrigued? Then read on…

Man, what happened to Blue in Standard? Time was, the top dogs were Faeries, Five-Color Control, Merfolk, and Reveillark. Now I’m looking over the StarCityGames.com $5000 Philly results and I see… what, two Islands? And zero copies of Cruel Ultimatum? Are we in the Twilight Zone or something?

Or is it what Paulo Vitor (congrats on the Top 8 at Austin! You too, Kibler, for winning the thing!) and others have said: that the only deck out there approaching its optimal build is Jund? It’s certainly a reasonable explanation, and there can be no question that Jund is the Deck to Beat in this format. After that, I suspect Red decks and Vampires will be popular, as well as Lotus Cobra acceleration decks. Although I haven’t tried it out yet, I could see Nick Eisel combo deck catching on if it proves its worth.

Like many others, I have been trying for some time to find a Blue deck that can actually win in Standard. To do so, you have to at least aim for beating Jund, Red, and Vampires at once – no easy task.

The following deck began life as a four-color control deck that played every color but black – in other words, Naya plus Blue or Bant plus Red. So I thought – hey, RedBant sounds like Rembrandt. There’s the deck’s name. Then somewhere down the line I cut Green, making the deck about a billion times better, but causing the name to make even less sense than it originally did. And did I let that stop me from keeping the name? Apparently not.

For my money, the Blue deck to which I will introduce you momentarily is not merely good, not merely the only Blue deck in the format that is approaching its optimal build, but the absolute best deck in the format. Hell, I’ll take it a step further. I think it’s the best deck I’ve ever built. So far in testing it has been beating Jund, Boros, Vampires, Mono-Red, and Naya Lotus Angel… in other words, basically everything.

Allow me to introduce you to Rembrandt.

So what’s up with those crazy counts, amiright?

Four Path to Exile is hardly surprising by now. 26 land and two Sphinx of Jwar Isle is nothing new, either; Patrick Chapin‘s recommended Cruel Control list sports those exact counts. Gavin Verhey inspiring Grixis list has four Courier’s Capsule because he (and I) are a color short of playing Esper Charm. Gavin also played three Chandra while Patrick played two Ajani, so I doubt a count of two and three, respectively, will raise too many eyebrows.

But four Mind Spring? Four Double Negative? Four Essence Scatter? Four Celestial Purge? Three Magosi, the Waterveil? Three Swerve?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely. In fact, it is the willingness to overload on high-quality situational cards that makes this deck work.

What’s that? You want more than just a blanket declaration that I’m right? Cool. Let’s take these one at a time.

On Celestial Purge

Have a look at the $5K Philadelphia Top 16 decklists and point to me the deck against which Celestial Purge is dead. It’s cool, I’ll wait. Oh, just Mono-White Control? That’s literally the only one without multiple quality targets?

Even assuming MWC actually turns out to be a contender (I am doubtful), having Purge still does not worry me, as I have an overload of creature removal for that matchup even without the Purges. I play more answers to their creatures than they play creatures, and that’s even before factoring in my Courier’s Capsules and, oh yeah, four Mind Springs compared to their zero draw magic whatsoever. If I’m losing to that deck, it’s because they have four Luminarch Ascension main, not because Purge wasn’t a more inclusive creature removal spell like Journey to Suckswhere.

The Naya decks have Bloodbraid Elf and Woolly Thoctar, and in some cases Ajani Vengeant. Those 8-11 threats are all permanents I absolutely want to remove, so once again I am fine with having four Purges. Against Boros and Red Deck wins, Purge basically just another removal spell; it’s more expensive and narrow (at least against Boros) than Path to Exile, but it doesn’t give the opponent a free land. Absolutely fine.

Then there’s Jund. And Vampires. And control decks playing Ajani and/or Chandra. In those matchups, wow am I glad to be maindecking four Purge. Against both Jund and Vampires it hardly even has a restriction; the most common cards it can’t target in those decks are Malakir Bloodwitch (due to protection from White), Eldrazi Monument, Great Sable Stag, and Garruk Wildspeaker (plus tokens).

Now that’s just a justification for why 4 maindeck Purge is reasonable. Why is it good? Read on.

On Playing Blue But Not Cruel Ultimatum

“Why bother playing White if you’re not going to run Baneslayer Angel or Day of Judgment?” comes the question. (Well, okay, technically I do have a pair of Baneslayers in the board.) More on why I am not playing those cards later; first, I will delve into why I am playing White in the first place.

The main reason I am running white is that I desperately want to play removal that Exiles instead of destroying. Sprouting Thrinax and Bloodghast are absolutely the main reason for that; the Unearth guys – Anathemancer, Hellspark Elemental, and Hell’s Thunder – are also important, but are secondary to those two. Terminate can deal with anything else, but it takes a Path to Exile or a Celestial Purge to properly deal with a Thrinax or Bloodghast.

Moreover, after you are maxed out on Terminates, your B/R/U options start to smell pretty quickly. Wretched Banquet is only one mana, but it’s a Sorcery, and halting Bloodbraid Elf before she can smack you is a big deal. Also, when the opponent has two creatures, one of them crappy and one of them insane (like, say, a Lotus Cobra sitting next to a copy of Rampaging Baloths), Wretched is wretched. Lightning Bolt won’t stop a Baneslayer, Thoctar, Dragon token, or usually even Vampire Nocturnus (unless you’re lucky and/or the opponent is sloppy with his fetches). Pyroclasm won’t stop any of the above either, and also can’t stop a Thoctar, Garruk token, or Sable Stag. Blech, blech, and double blech.

I vividly remember one game with Gavin’s deck where I cast Cruel Ultimatum, my opponent discarded two Disfigure and one business spell, untapped, played a Swamp to return the two Bloodghasts I had Pyroclasmed away earlier, and cast Vampire Nocturnus. I subsequently cast two out of three Sphinxes, all three Chandras, and three of four Courier Capsules trying to stay in the game. I was down to 17 cards in my library when the Bloodghasts finally got me. I just couldn’t keep a Sphinx on the table through his Gatekeepers, and I didn’t have enough counters to stop his Hexmages from offing my Chandras. With every fetchland representing another two rounds of Bloodghasts, I just couldn’t keep up.

Now? I just Exile the suckers and move on. They’re barely even a blip on my radar.

As for the loss of Cruel Ultimatum, what has it done for me lately? It used to be the case that Cruel Ultimatum was just Game Over. Lights Out. The End. In this midrange-heavy Standard, that’s simply not true anymore. Jund’s topdecks are too good, and Vampires has too much card draw and recurring threats. What happens if you Cruel Ultimatum them and then they show you the Mind Sludge they’ve been protecting with three random removal spells they didn’t mind discarding?

Still, the more I tested with Cruel Ultimatum decks, the more I gravitated toward the conclusion that I wasn’t losing because Cruel didn’t do enough, I was losing because my removal was too wimpy. I’d be stuck with a Pyroclasm when the opponent had Putrid Leech, or Lightning Bolt when he had Sprouting Thrinax. Even Concentrate/Edict/Three Tragedies/Drain Life you for five was not getting the job done, because once I put myself ahead and them into topdeck mode, their topdecks could actually beat mine. I had to find a new removal suite.

At first I was running a mix of Path, Purge, Essence Scatter, and splashing Green for Bant Charm. Once I decided to man up and just play 4 Scatter, 4 Path, 4 Purge, I was able to cut Green while retaining my Thrinax-hating removal suite. The difference was incredible.

The only cards my White removal suite cannot adequately deal with are Malakir Bloodwitch, Sphinx of Jwar Isle (which is not to say that any targeted spot removal can touch him), and – in the case of Purge only – cards that are non-Black and non-Red. A resolved Bloodwitch is thus an unusually large threat against me, just as Great Sable Stag is unusually good against decks that rely on Black removal. (They’ve usually got some Lightning Bolts for it, though, just like I’ve got Chandra for Bloodwitch. Also, an important distinction, of course, is that countermagic is actually an answer to Bloodwitch, whereas it is worthless against Stag.) All in all, I think White absolutely has the format’s premier removal suite, and in an environment with so many durable threats, I think that is incredibly, incredibly important for any control deck to take advantage of that suite.

So what’s the other reason I want to play White? Not Baneslayer, not Wrath, and not the Luminarch Ascension in the board – admittedly, an “icing on the cake” inclusion. And as much as I have come to love Offering to Asha as a sideboard card, I realize that I could be playing Cancel instead and would not be losing a ton of value in most of the matchups where Offering comes in. No, the other reason I want to play White is Ajani Vengeant.

In most matchups, Ajani is “just” a Tendrils of Corruption that sometimes randomly blows up all your opponent’s lands.

Sure, he only shoots the creature for three, but on average you end up “gaining” five or six life because the opponent has to divert another 2-3 damage that would have gone to your face to Ajani in order to stop him from doing it again later. However, when the opponent has a Planeswalker that needs killing (and which has three or fewer Loyalty counters left, yes, yes), Ajani can do that too. And if the opponent’s stuck on land, Ajani can help keep it that way. And if you’re out of counters and need to keep the opponent off Mind Sludge mana for one more turn so you can drop a Chandra or a Sphinx before it’s too late, Ajani can help there, too.

And despite being a stellar removal spell, against other control decks he is absolutely matchup-defining. At four mana, he is roughly twice as easy to resolve as Cruel Ultimatum, and his Ultimate effect is far more devastating. He even takes himself out of Lightning Bolt range as soon as he hits the table, making the ticking time bomb even more durable.

All this, and still he randomly steals games with his one-sided Armageddon. Frankly, if not for the fact that Ajani is tepid against Jund (Sorcery-speed Tendrils for three is not so hot against Putrid Leech, Sprouting Thrinax, Bloodbraid Elf, etc), I would be maindecking four. There is just no comparable card in the format.

Cruel Ultimatum is a phenomenal card, but splashing White into a deck that wants to hit UURRBBB on turn 7 is just miserable now that Vivids are gone. It absolutely can be done, but you absolutely will lose significantly more games to your manabase than would a regular tri-color control deck. And considering how very few Black cards I feel I am missing by playing this deck, it’s obvious to me that Cruel is just not the way to go right now.

On Day of Judgment, Baneslayer Angel, and Jace Beleren

There are three glaring omissions from this Blue-White-Red control maindeck: Day of Judgment, Baneslayer Angel, and Jace Beleren.

Baneslayer is a pretty godawful finisher for a control deck in general right now, because of a little theory I’ve developed. I call it the Baneslayer’s Gonna Die theory. That’s B.G.D. for short. Jund is commonly maindecking Terminates, Maelstrom Pulses, and Resounding Thunders (and yes, they routinely do reach eight mana in this matchup). Vampires is playing Gatekeeper of Malakir and Tendrils of Agony. Every White deck is packing Path to Exile. Since I am playing no other targetable creatures, what’s going to happen as soon as I lay my five-drop and my opponent looks at the creature removal spells that have been sitting dead in his hand since turn 1? Yup, Banelayer’s Gonna Die. Even if I wait until I have seven mana and can play her with Swerve backup, what happens in the all-too-common scenario where my opponent has drawn two previously-blank removal spells? B.G.D.

So forget Baneslayer as a maindeck finisher. Just win with Planeswalkers against Vampires and Wrath decks, and with Jwar Jwar Binks against everything else. You can avoid altogether that whole messy exchange of your five-mana Sorcery-speed clunker for the opponent’s previously-dead removal spell. Even better, this is a free source of maindeck card advantage. Every deck but Mono-Red plays targeted creature removal of some sort, and whenever they draw one of those blanks instead of a real threat, that’s one less answer you have to draw.

Now what about “Wrath”?

Day of Judgment is fine against most decks. It’s on the slow side against Boros, but generally not fatally so. It’s pretty lackluster against Jund, as it allows Putrid Leech to get in a hit or two before you can remove him on turn 4, turns Sprouting Thrinax from a manageable 3/3 into three tough-to-kill tokens, and is both Sorcery-speed and seriously overpriced as an answer to Bloodbraid Elf. And as Jund plays a small number of durable threats, actual two-for-ones are not all that common.

Although sometimes when I was testing Wrath against Jund I was pleased that it could trade one-for-one with Broodmate Dragon, or clean up two Garruk tokens at once, most often I just found myself wishing I had a Path or a Purge – in some cases, even just a freaking Lightning Bolt that wouldn’t tie up my mana to do the same poor job of offing a Thrinax. Since Jund is the Deck To Beat right now, the fact that Wrath is weak against it is a major strike against it.

However, there’s a bigger problem with Wrath than just its weak showing against Jund. Consider my mana curve:

One-drops: 4
Two-drops: 15 [counting Courier’s Capsule]
Three-drops: 4
Four-plus drops: 11 [counting Mind Spring]

Bearing in mind that Courier’s Capsule, although it often comes down on turn two, ends up costing four in total, where do you put Wrath? Mind Spring, Jwar Jwar, and the planeswalkers are all integral to winning either the Vampires or the Jund matchups, so you’re necessarily cutting from the lower end of the curve to fit it. This means that whenever you get a draw where Wrath is your only removal spell, you are taking extra damage in the early game in order to tap out on turn 4, and yet once you’ve tapped out and let the opponent resolve another threat or two, you cannot counter his next threat.

Now compare Wrath to a regular spot removal spell. Say my opponent plays creatures on turns 2 and 3, on the play. I’ve let them both resolve. I pass my third turn with three mana up. My opponent thinks “well, if he’s got a counter or Wrath here, playing another threat is stupid,” so he just swings and passes. If I’m holding an Instant-speed removal spell, I just use it on his end step and I’m all set. If I have to Wrath next turn, on the other hand, I’m stranding that Double Negative in my hand until my opponent makes me deal with the threat he laid while I was Wrathing.

All in all, Wrath is just very anti-synergistic with the deck. I hate tapping out to use Ajani as a removal spell, let alone for a removal spell that doesn’t gain me life, and Wrath never Armageddons my opponent.

Finally we have Jace. My dislike for Jace in this deck has a lot to do with my dislike for Wrath: he makes me tap three mana in my main phase, and the effect I get does not justify that cost. So often when I was playing Jace, I had to use him as a Renewed Faith: play him on turn 3, draw a card, and let my opponent attack and kill him. I had to do this because I needed cards, and because using him on turn 4 would be even worse. In comparison, I can drop Courier’s Capsule on turn 4 and still play a Swerve, Scatter, Purge, or Path if I need to, or tap out for a Mind Spring and at least draw two cards instead of just one.

In short, the times when Jace would draw me two or more cards were far outweighed by the times when he would be an overpriced cycled Renewed Faith. Courier’s Capsule is reliable and convenient from a mana perspective, and Mind Spring outdraws Jace four times a day and ten times on Sunday. I don’t feel compelled to run any more card drawing than that.

On Magosi and the Lands

First, a few notes about the manabase. The nice part about playing only three colors is that my enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands are value-added things like Sejiri Refuge and Magosi instead of pure mana fixers like Crumbling Necropolis. It’s also nice that Sejiri Refuge helps offset the loss of life from the seven fetches. It’s even nicer that the rest of my lands are basics, fetches, and Glacial Fortresses (which are closer in practice to Tundras than to Coastal Towers, on account of all the basics and fetches), as it means I basically have only seven lands that actually enter the battlefield tapped. You may also have noticed that every land in the deck can support Double Negative except for the singleton Plains. This is intentional, as having turn 3 Double Negative mana is very important for reasons outlined in the previous section.

Now to Magosi. As a deck with countermagic, it’s important to bake in defenses against the opponent sort of sitting back and Sculpting the Perfect Turn. This is where Magosi, and to a lesser extent Jwar (or a Planeswalker, depending on the matchup) come in. Obviously Magosi is the stones with Mind Spring. You charge it up when the opponent fails to make a play and you have a counter in hand (if he makes a play on his extra turn you’ll just counter it), then you untap, turn all your lands sideways except for Magosi, draw a billion cards, then take another turn so you can end up untapped with a fully-stocked arsenal. It’s also great to do this with Jwar Isle or Baneslayer, as just being able to sneak said fatty into play and then untap and swing is absolutely amazing.

Magosi takes the Sculpt the Perfect Turn play route right off the table for the opponent. It becomes suicidal; you sit there building up threats, waiting for the Blue deck to blink, and suddenly you’re facing down Jwar Isle and the opponent is somehow still untapped. Or you’re facing down Ajani Vengeant with eight mana worth of counter backup. Or an untapped opponent with a seven-card hand so full of countermagic it doesn’t matter what you do, he’s going to Magosi-Jwar you in a couple turns anyway.

The funny part is, in plenty of games you never even activate Magosi, but the entire reason you don’t have to is its presence on the table. If it weren’t there, the opponent would be setting up for a big turn that could break you.

I started out with one Magosi, then went up to two, and then three. I have been leery of going to four because that would mean I’d either have to drop below two basic Islands or else mess with my color ratios, and I have spent enough time tinkering with those to be pleased with them where they are.

On The Countermagic Suite

I’ll start with the weirdest-looking count: four Essence Scatter, three Swerve. You may have guessed that Swerve started out as Negate, until I figured out that Swerve was infinitely better. The only cards in the format I care about that Negate can target but Swerve cannot are Planeswalkers, and Swerve is so nuts against everything else (Blightning much? Mind Sludge much?), I am willing to accept that my only outs to a given Planeswalker are Double Negative and Ajani to the face. Maindeck Swerve will win me far more games than lack of maindeck Negate will cost me.

As with so many other things in this deck, these counts have more to do with Jund and Vampires than anything else. Against most other decks I want four Essence Scatter and fewer than three Swerve, but Swerve is so important in these two matchups, I am willing to accept that I will have too many against other decks.

Consider a few matchups:

Against Jund I want 4 Essence Scatter to stop Sprouting Thrinax, Broodmate Dragon, and Anathemancer (and it’s obviously reasonable against the other creatures).
Against other control decks I want 4 Essence Scatter because they actually stop Sphinxes (both Lost and Jwar Isle) properly, and I really do not want any Sphinxes resolving.
Against Red decks I am thrilled to play 4 Essence Scatter, as I will have plenty of targets.
Against combo I do not want 4 Essence Scatter, but nor do I want any of my anti-creature measures. Not much I’m willing to do about that.

Against Jund I want 3 Swerve to turn around Blightning and, to a lesser extent, Bituminous Blast.
Against other control decks I want more than 3 Swerve because it counters opposing counterspells.
Against beatdown decks I am generally not that thrilled with 3 Swerve because they are not very good in the early game, but they are often solid two-for-ones against late-game burn spells, so long as drawing them early does not lead me to fail to reach the late game in the first place.
Against combo decks I want more than 3 Swerve because it can counter critical combo pieces like Naya Charm.

Once I had figured all this out, bringing in Swerve for Negate changed everything. Imagine your Jund opponent on turn 3. Unless he’s Duressed you and knows your hand, can he even cast Blightning into your untapped UR? If you have Swerve, it could literally be the end of the game. This is Blightning, mind you, the staple anti-control beating of choice for Jund. And what about Mind Sludge from Vampires? Even just having Swerve in your deck can screw the opponent up.

Later in the game, Swerving a Bituminous Blast can potentially be better than casting Double Negative on it. If the opponent casts it with a Putrid Leech or Bloodbraid Elf on-table (or Cascades into either), I can deal with an on-table threat for the bargain price of two mana. This is to say nothing of the giddy excitement that comes from Swerving a lethal burn spell into the opponent’s face (or onto a creature), allowing me to win the race I was about to lose.

Onward to the rest of the countermagic suite.

Patrick Chapin played three Double Negative; I am playing four because I have room and think it’s awesome. Negative is obviously on the slow side as countermagic goes, but if you cast it exactly on turn 3, you are probably not missing out on much; the only way you could have used your mana more efficiently in this deck full of two-drops is if you had a Path to Exile along with a two-mana effect. Casting Double Negative on turn 4, however, is generally much weaker; unless you played a tapped land as your fourth land drop, you probably could have cast two spells in that one turn. This is why the manabase is configured such that I can expect to have turn 3 Double Negative mana up as often as possible.

Usually Double Negative is just Cancel, but in those few occasions where it stops a Cascade spell, it is often the difference between winning and losing a game. I have yet to find the circumstance where I could productively Negative two targets in a non-Cascade setting, but I’d be interested to see if that situation is really out there.

Finally, there’s Traumatic Visions. I like Traumatic Visions. I want to play it. The problem is, in practice I never have time to use it. I am using all my mana every turn, or all my mana minus one, but very rarely all my mana minus two. This is especially true on turn 2, when I need to be casting Essence Scatter, Swerve, Celestial Purge, or Path to Exile. I understand playing it in a Wrath deck where I am planning to let my opponent resolve whatever creatures he likes in the first couple turns, but as previously explained, I do not want to be a Wrath deck. Experience has told me that means I don’t want to be a Traumatic Visions deck either.

On Mind Spring

If you’ve read this far I probably don’t need to convince you on Mind Spring, but I think it’s worth noting how I arrived at the decision to play four. As part of my quest to find the best Blue deck, I played quite a few games with Gavin Verhey Grixis Control, featuring Sphinx of Lost Truths. I was very impressed with the Sphinx, as it helped me dig to Cruel Ultimatums at five mana and solidify my board at seven mana. From then on every Blue deck I tried had to include Sphinx of Lost Truths.

Then I started noticing something. Remember the Baneslayer’s Gonna Die theory? Sphinx is gonna die too; those Tendrils and Terminates just get so lonely in the winter.

In other words, at five mana Sphinx was “draw three, discard three, opponent has to blow a removal spell.” At seven mana he was “draw three, opponent has to blow a removal spell.” Besides the effect of making the opponent tap some mana to remove the Sphinx (which was, admittedly, occasionally relevant), Sphinx was basically either a five mana two-for-one plus some card quality improvements due to the draw-and-discard, or a four-for-one at seven mana.

Considering I rarely got to keep my blocker in either case, Mind Spring seemed like a slam dunk improvement: a three-for one at five mana, a five-for-one at seven mana, and if I was stuck on mana earlier, I could get a two-for-one at four mana or cycle it at three in case of emergencies. Making the swap did necessitate adding extra finishers, as one thing that was nice about the Sphinx was that although the first one or two would die, after chaining them together you’ve just drawn so many business spells that you outlast the opponent’s removal and the last Sphinx kills them. Mind Spring doesn’t have that going for it, but I was more interested in converting the games where I cast a five-mana Sphinx and lost (or never made it to the five mana mark) than I was avoiding dedicating a couple slots to finishers.

So how did the Mind Springs work out? Completely, completely insane. Spring for five is not as good as Cruel Ultimatum, but it is shockingly close. For every couple games where you Mind Spring and lose due to an on-table threat that Ultimatum would have killed, or due to the lack of lifegain Ultimatum would have provided, you have the games where the opponent was in topdeck mode, and just killing a dude and drawing three cards was insufficient to overcome his subsequent topdecks. In those situations, Mind Spring just completely ends the game, as it fills your hand all the way up to seven – sometimes more than seven, allowing you to pitch some lands and improve card quality as well – and makes you very well stocked against whatever the opponent has coming. This is to say nothing of the games where you decide to use it before you have hit the seven mana mark, something Cruel Ultimatum does not support.

The other nice thing about Mind Spring is that you don’t have to tap out for it. It’s very mana efficient for whatever you want to do. Generally speaking, if I have more than five lands out, unless I am about to take an extra turn with Magosi, I will more often than not leave one or two lands open when Springing. This is not so much a rule of thumb as it is context-dependent; I want to be able to answer my opponent’s next move, and leaving mana up allows me to do that. In some cases, for example when I am drawing five or more cards, I will leave only one mana up even though I am holding Essence Scatter and/or Swerve, because I can expect to draw at least one enters-the-battlefield-untapped land which I can use as my land drop for the turn, giving me two mana on the opponent’s turn. Usually it seems that the extra card is worth the chance that I will be stuck with only one mana up.


Versus Jund

Let’s start with the most important one, shall we? This matchup is good, but only if you play it right. If you give Jund an inch, it will take a foot, but if you don’t give an inch, they are in serious trouble. There are a lot of tricks to the matchup, so I will outline as many as I can think of here.

The most important piece of advice I can give is to play against Jund with a sense of urgency. Jund is not messing around; every card they play is going to be a big threat. Since they are going to be doing something big basically every turn (although they can almost never afford two big effects in the same turn, which is extremely nice), you need to either be answering their big threat or doing something big yourself, every turn. What this means is that if you have Mind Spring and no reactive spell, tap those lands and Spring away. The opponent knows he has to be aggressive to beat you; he is not going to hold back just because you were representing countermagic mana.

Except opportunistically, you are never the aggressor in this format; the longer the game drags on, the more your chances of winning improve. This means that you should prioritize going one-for-one with the opponent’s threats for as long as you can before refilling with draw magic. If your only options are turn 2 Courier’s Capsule or turn 2 Purge on the opponent’s Putrid Leech, Purge the Leech. The more land drops you have made when it’s time to refill, the better – both because it lets you Spring for more and because it lets you multitask with Courier’s Capsule. Whenever you tap out to refill, you have to know that the opponent is going to resolve something scary – Garruk is usually the scariest, since only Ajani and Jwar Isle can realistically remove him – so make sure you don’t do it until you can either do it with no downside (e.g. while leaving Double Negative mana up, which is rarely realistic), or you absolutely have to.

Speaking of Garruk, I have easily, by far, not close, lost more games in the pre-board Jund matchup to Garruk Wildspeaker than to any other Magic: the Gathering card. Not at all close. Not even a little bit close. Nowhere near close. He is by far, majorly big time, not close, their best maindeck card against you. Completely. I would rather suffer an unanswered Blightning than an unanswered Garruk, every time. Easily.

The point I’m trying to get across is, don’t treat Garruk lightly. Whenever you’re considering tapping out, like for a Mind Spring, and you think “what’s the worst he can do to me?” the answer is almost always Garruk. I mean, yeah, Bituminous into Garruk is better, or maybe Bituminous into Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning or something. But those are the only things that come to mind. Maybe Broodmate Dragon, depending on your draw, but I have knocked out plenty of Broodmates with a pair of spot removal spells after juicing up on Mind Spring. Broodmate Dragon is manageable, but how are you planning on dealing with three 3/3s that you can’t target with Purify? And which you could target with Ajani, except you have to use Ajani to kill Garruk himself or else it’s going to be even more 3/3s? Throwing down a Jwar and racing is often your only option, so you’d better hope your life total is high enough if Garruk resolves.

Point being, the guy is an absolute house against you. Respect that.

With this in mind, you are probably wondering why I took out Negates for Swerves. Actually, Garruk was a major part of that decision. See, smart Jund players know how valuable Garruk is. They will not just run him into untapped mana willy-nilly. They will wait for the opening to resolve him, because once he is on the table, he is going to do some serious damage. It got to the point where I was dying to Garruk with Negate in hand, because Jund simply piles on too many threats for me to finish most games without tapping out at some point. So I figured if Negate’s not going to answer Garruk when I need it to, why not play something that absolutely annihilates Blightning in that slot instead? And here we are.

Oh, and the card I’ve lost the most to in the post-board matchup? (As well as overall.) Duress, easy. It is absolutely savage, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.

Man, thinking about Garruk and Duress has made me depressed. How about you? Don’t worry, the matchup is still strong overall despite these two cards… but if you need a little pick-me-up, just re-read the line “3x Swerve” over and over again while thinking about the card Blightning.

Pretend your Planeswalkers are Sorceries in this matchup. Don’t just run an Ajani out there “for value” and start tapping the opponent’s lands; he’s going to eat a Maelstrom Pulse, and then when Garruk comes knocking later you’re going to feel like an idiot. Ajani’s job in this matchup is to do one of three things: kill Bloodbraid Elf, kill Garruk, and help Sphinx race by shooting the opponent’s dome. That’s basically it. Every time I’ve tried to go Ultimate with Ajani in this matchup, he has ended up dying before he could actually trade for one of my opponent’s threats. The matchup started getting easier once I learned better. The same rule applies to Chandra – don’t just toss her down and start plinking away at the opponent’s life total, expecting to go Ultimate. She’s going to get Pulsed. Save her for killing a Garruk token, a Dragon token, a Putrid Leech, or a Bloodbraid Elf.

If you have the choice of using Essence Scatter or just a removal spell on a Leech or Thrinax, try to save your Scatter for a Broodmate Dragon later on.

If the opponent plays Bloodbraid into Putrid Leech, and all you have is one removal spell, the way the math works out you’re generally better off killing the Bloodbraid before it can hit you than saving the removal for the Leech. If Bloodbraid hits you the turn he comes in, and hits again the following turn, you will have taken 6 damage where Leech would have dealt only 4 so far. You’ll have taken 9 damage from Bloodbraid the turn after that, compared to Leech’s 8. The turn after, they’ll both have dealt you 12, and only if they both swing so many times that Bloodbraid would have dealt you 15 by himself (Leech would have dealt 16) will it actually have made sense to kill the Leech instead of the Bloodbraid in the first place, but obviously at that point you’re dead anyway. Also, don’t forget that leaving the Leech alive means the opponent will be taking two every time he swings with it.

When you are on the play, there is no spell in a Jund deck that can be Swerved on turn 2. (On the draw there is Blightning, but on the play, nothing.) If you have no Essence Scatter and want to play a second enters-the-battlefield-tapped land, turn 2 is a good time to do it unless you really want to keep mana open for removal.

If the opponent opens with Putrid Leech on the play, and all you have is a Path along with Essence Scatter and/or Swerve, don’t Path the Leech when he attacks with it. Take one hit from it so that you can still have mana up for his third-turn play, be it Blightning or Thrinax. If he doesn’t make one, or you can’t counter it, you can still Exile the Leech on his end step or your next turn. Killing the Leech before it can hit you will save four life, but the window of opportunity to counter the three-drop will have closed; now you will be backpedaling again trying to deal with a resolved creature or choosing which two cards to discard to Blightning.

If you have a Path, another removal spell, and three lands (but no Swerve), you are probably better off just killing his turn 2 Leech and then on turn 3 casting Path on whatever creature he played turn 2, while leaving Essence Scatter mana up. This will save on damage, and if you have no Swerve for his Blightning, you are going to take the hit anyway.

Sideboarding against Jund:

+3 Lightning Bolt
+2 Baneslayer Angel
-3 Ajani Vengeant
-2 Chandra Nalaar

Baneslayers come in to decrease my vulnerability to Thought Hemorrhage on Sphinx of Jwar Isle, as well as to dilute the opponent’s boarding plans. Jund has lots of juicy potential cards to bring in: Duress, Anathemancer, Thought Hemorrhage, Great Sable Stag, Goblin Ruinblaster, etc. But if they’re bringing those cards in, what is coming out? Usually Terminate and Maelstrom Pulse are the first to go, but if I have a couple of BSAs post-board, can they really afford to run with no answers to it? And if I’m only boarding two, how many slots should they devote to removing it? And is Thought Hemorrhage even worth running if they can’t name Sphinx of Jwar Isle and just win? (They can name Mind Spring, certainly, but what if I untap and drop a BSA after they do that?)

Much as playing Swerve creates a dilemma for Jund opponents when they want to cast Blightning on turn 3 into untapped UR, boarding in two Baneslayers – not so many that I will draw them every game, but enough that I will periodically mise one – puts the opponent once again in the unenviable position of picking his poison: keeping in removal instead of juicy sideboard cards (when I might not even draw the Angel, or the lack of early pressure due to having a reactive spell instead of a threat means that by the time I actually play the Angel and you kill it, the game will have already slipped away from you) or taking out the removal and suffering random mised wins due to BSA’s ability to steal almost any race? It’s a great place to be in, as the Rembrandt player.

Lightning Bolt is a minor upgrade over Ajani in this matchup. It is used for the same purpose – killing Garruk, Sable Stag, etc. – but although it does not gain life, it only costs one mana and can also kill Putrid Leech due to its instant speed. Both of those upsides outweigh the loss of lifegain to me, especially considering one of Ajani’s targets (Bloodbraid) cancels out the lifegain through haste. For the record, if I were to drop Lightning Bolt from the board at some point, I would definitely keep all 3 copies of Ajani in; I really do need answers to a resolved Garruk or Sable Stag.

Speaking of Great Sable Stag, remember that the opponent may have it post-board, so adjust your valuations of Path, Purge, and Essence Scatter accordingly. Of the three, only Path will stop a Stag, so remember that if you have Path and Essence Scatter against, say, a Thrinax, although you might be inclined to save the Scatter for Broodmate Dragon, you might be better off Scattering the Thrinax in case the opponent’s next play is Stag.

Also remember that Anathemancer’s “flashback” dodges countermagic, so in some cases you are better off leaving him on the table than killing him (unless you are Exiling him) and letting him come back for a ton more later when you have more nonbasics out. Also, keep in mind that just because you haven’t seen Anathemancer from your opponent yet, doesn’t mean he’s not playing it; try to play basics or fetches over nonbasics when the downside is trivial.

Versus Vampires

Good news! With two exceptions, this is an attrition war, and you are the one playing Mind Spring.

The two exceptions are the Vampires deck’s pair of trumps against you: Malakir Bloodwitch and Mind Sludge. Almost all of my losses against this deck come from one of those two cards, so just like Garruk, they are to be treated with much respect. (Obviously there are a lot of situations where you don’t have much choice but to pray they don’t have it – if your only remaining anti-creature card is Essence Scatter and the opponent plays a Nocturnus, generally your highest-EV play is to just counter it and hope the opponent doesn’t have a Bloodwitch – but still. Respect when possible.)

Remember that the opponent’s Disfigures are pretty bad in this matchup, but they do have one useful purpose: sending Bloodghast to the graveyard when a Celestial Purge is headed his way. It’s extremely important to Exile the opponent’s Bloodghasts, so play around this whenever possible. At later points in the game, the opponent may even have four mana open to Tendrils his own Bloodghast, which is even better for him. Don’t walk into these traps if you can avoid them, and remember that if you have a Swerve to spare, it’s only useful against Disfigure on Bloodghast if there is another targetable creature on the table. Vampire Hexmage doesn’t count, as he can sacrifice himself in response to Swerve.

Vampire Hexmage is a one-for-one with any Planeswalker, so don’t try to go Ultimate while he is on the table. Also remember that he can sacrifice for a Time Walk if you try to use Magosi when he is on the table.

If you don’t have any outs to Mind Sludge and the opponent is about to hit five mana, you should run out a Courier’s Capsule if you can. Capsule is a good way to bank two cards so that you can at least refuel after getting Sludged, but it’s obviously nowhere near as good as just having the counter at the right time.

Sideboarding against Vampires:

+4 Offering to Asha
+2 Chandra Nalaar
+1 Ajani Vengeant
-3 Swerve
-2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
-2 Essence Scatter

Although Swerve is way too narrow after the opponent boards out all his removal, you still need more counters for Mind Sludge than just Double Negative. Enter Offering to Asha. It’s slow, but the Vampires deck is full of expensive spells and even in the late game it will rarely be lacking for important targets. Even better, gaining four life can easily be a Time Walk in a matchup where the opponent rarely deals you more than four damage at a time.

If you want to surprise a Vampires player, leave in a couple of Swerves instead of bringing in Offerings. If they’re reading this, there’s a decent chance they just read the sideboarding guide and skipped over this middle paragraph, meaning you can catch them unawares and make them Mind Sludge their own brains out. Shh!

Anyway, I board out all the creatures because they will have Gatekeeper of Malakir post-board (even if they don’t want him, as Tendrils and Disfigure and Monument have to go first; unless the opponent has twelve cards to board in, Gatekeeper will still be there). Chandra is not only Gatekeeper-proof, she is also a convenient answer to the problem card of Bloodwitch. The way the math works out, activating Chandra’s Ultimate ability is essentially a win; she deals the opponent 12 damage when she does this, and between Sign In Blood, fetchlands, extra Chandra activations, and Ajani shots to the face if necessary, I have never failed to kill the opponent on the spot when activating her Ultimate.

Versus Boros

+4 Lightning Bolt
+2 Baneslayer Angel
+1 Ajani Vengeant
-4 Double Negative
-3 Swerve

Game 1 is reasonable, though not great. Game 2 is a pounding in favor of Rembrandt. With six lifegain effects, eight one-mana removal spells, and all the usual overload of card drawing, it’s tough for Boros to keep a threat on the table, much less to threaten your life total. I have ended a decent number of post-board games against them above 20 life.

I tried Offering to Asha in this matchup, but it was too easy to play around. The games you lose against Boros are the ones where they have dudes out that you have failed to remove, not the ones where they burn you out from the high single digits. This is why I opted to keep my two Chandras; they are slow, but often a three-for-one against Boros’s host of weenies. If the opponent shows Path to Exile in game 2, then board out the Baneslayers for Chandras number three and four.

I tried out Pyroclasm instead of Lightning Bolt, but it proved vastly inferior. Lightning Bolt stops a turn 1 Steppe Lynx from doming you for four when you are on the draw, and is much better at disrupting a Ranger of Eos into Bushwhacker combo (where the real threat is the initial round of hasty pumped-up damage, not cleaning up the resulting 1/1 dorks afterwards). Plus it can actually kill a one-toughness creature through Harm’s Way.

Speaking of Harm’s Way, remember to watch out for it post-board. Don’t expect Ajani or Lightning Bolt to be guaranteed killers when the opponent has an untapped Plains. Also remember (in both games) to burn Celestial Purges whenever you can, since they have limited targets in this matchup. You don’t really ever want to use another removal spell in order to “save” them for later.

Versus Mono-Red

+4 Offering to Asha
+2 Baneslayer Angel
+1 Swerve
+1 Ajani Vengeant
-4 Double Negative
-2 Chandra Nalaar
-2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle

Also a fairly straightforward boarding plan. Swerve stays in because it is far better here than it is against Boros, as post-board the opponent will have 8-12 burn spells that deal you more than five damage, and that’s not to mention Elemental Appeal. With that in mind, I should think it obvious why the fourth Swerve is coming in.

In game 1, you’ll usually want to Essence Scatter Plated Geopede if given the choice between doing that and using Path or Purge, as Path and Purge stop Hellspark Elemental and Hell’s Thunder from coming back. You generally don’t have the option of Scattering Goblin Guide. However, in game two it is a trickier decision because of Goblin Ruinblaster. So make sure to weigh your relative vulnerability to Ruinblaster, Hell’s Thunder, and Hellspark Elemental against one another when deciding which answer to use in a given situation.

Game 2 the opponent is not likely to have Geopede or Goblin Guide anymore, as they simply don’t do enough damage against you. Instead, expect Unstable Footing and Goblin Ruinblaster. What this means is that, except for Ruinblaster’s little 2/1 body, you and your opponent will be dealing purely in terms of Philosophy of Fire. The opponent will be using his cards to attack your life total, so cards you use to raise that life total are never wasted. Throwing down Ajani and shooting the opponent’s face is fantastic, because he’ll have to spend another burn spell offing Ajani unless he wants you to gain another three life in another couple turns. (Like Swerve, it’s also nice because it makes the opponent’s Earthquakes increasingly more dangerous to use.) That’s at least +6 life from one card, and few of your opponent’s card can manage to give you -6 life by themselves.

Similarly, Baneslayer Angel is worth running over Jwar Jwar because she can come down earlier and draw some fire if need be. Use her like Ajani early when your life total starts getting down towards 10 (meaning two burn spells can kill you) – in other words, don’t obsess over getting her in and protecting her, just throw her down and make the opponent spend 5+ damage getting rid of her. Even if you lose both your copies, winning with Swerve and Ajani is nowhere near out of the question once you start churning through your library with Mind Spring. (What are they going to do, not try to burn you because you might Swerve them?)

It’s best to get Baneslayer in via Magosi, as that will ensure that she can get at least one hit in before she is burned away (and, even better, makes protecting her from removal with Offering to Asha a viable proposition).

At first I was afraid of taking out Jwar Isle, but after I tried the 2 Baneslayer, 4 Ajani configuration for a few games, I quickly realized that durability of finishers was not an issue. Surviving long enough to go nuts with Mind Spring was really what mattered, and Baneslayer is much better at helping you achieve that than Jwar is.

Versus Naya Lotus Angel

+4 Offering to Asha
+2 Chandra Nalaar
-3 Ajani Vengeant
-3 Swerve

Ajani is not so hot in this matchup because his damage ability doesn’t kill anything relevant, but they always have too many random burn spells lying around for him to be reliable as a tapper. Offering to Asha is overpriced for this matchup, but at least it will one-for-one with a big expensive fatty when I need it to. Its lifegain is also valuable since the opponent will eventually try to burn me out, meaning it can still one-for-one with a burn spell to the dome even when it fails to counter something.

I have thought about bringing in Baneslayer here, but unfortunately my opponent has to know I am boarding out Swerve, so he must know he can safely just double-burn her even if I have two mana up. If I’m just expecting her to gain me some life by drawing burn away from my face, I’d obviously rather just play Offering to Asha, which not only heals up my face, it also has the potential to trade with something big.

Watch out for Manabarbs post-board; if you won’t have a counter up when they might play it, try to save a Purge for it.

Versus Cruel Control

+4 Offering to Asha
+3 Lightning Bolt
+2 Chandra Nalaar
+1 Luminarch Ascension
+1 Ajani Vengeant
+1 Swerve
-4 Path to Exile
-4 Essence Scatter
-4 Celestial Purge

Obviously the plan here is to max out on countermagic and noncreature threats. Lightning Bolts are in because they can deal with Jace, although if the opponent is playing White (but not Jace) you will probably want to leave in some Purges for their Ajanis. Remember that in this Wrath-free build, your only answer to an opposing Sphinx of Jwar Isle is a Sphinx of your own, so tread carefully with your two copies.

Speaking of Ajani, as Patrick Chapin once said, the mirror is all about Cruel Ultimatum…unless, of course, one of you has Ajani or Luminarch Ascension. Luminarch Ascension is obviously a staggering threat (just watch out for Esper Charm from the four-color builds), and Ajani’s Ultimate is, quite simply, the end of the game. It is possible to resolve Cruel Ultimatum on your opponent and still lose, but it is essentially impossible to go Ultimate with Ajani and then lose. Even better, Ajani costs about half as much as Cruel does to cast, so he is much easier to push through. If your opponent taps out for turn 3 Jace on the draw, he might be unwittingly committing suicide; what if you should untap and drop Ajani?

Once again the Offerings are in; in this case, simply because they are another counter. They’re glaringly weaker than Double Negative and even Swerve (whose sole purpose in this matchup is to counter a counter) but they sure are more threatening to Cruel Ultimatum (particularly in a counter-war) than Essence Scatter, and they still counter Sphinx just fine for most of the game.


I was not exaggerating in the introduction.

I genuinely believe this is both the best deck in the format and the best deck I’ve ever built. If something else comes along to dethrone it, then great – but until that day, the only reason I could possibly advocate playing anything other than this in Standard is if you haven’t practiced with it enough to navigate the Jund matchup correctly. That’s the only excuse that comes to mind for not playing this deck, and longtime readers will know that this is a level of confidence I have rarely expressed about a deck.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy it!

Best of luck…

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]