Feature Article – Standard Focus: Jund and the Angel

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Returns to Richmond!
Thursday, October 9th – Billy Moreno is a fine example of an outside-the-box deckbuilder. Today, alongside some excellent Shards Draft analysis, he brings us two exciting deck ideas. The first focuses on the Jund Shard, while the second looks at the power of Battlegrace Angel…

I’m writing about Constructed this week, for the first time in a long time. I told Craig I was going to the release event this weekend and I’d be happy to write about that, but he subtly suggested that I talk about Standard instead. Well, I’m just gonna do both. And artfully. Feel free to watch in awe as I show you how to smoothly transition from talking about Magic cards to talking even more about them. The key is working in the “even more” without making your reader feel self-conscious about the less they might have offered in the same situation.

Sometimes it makes sense, as a writer, to paint yourself into a corner just so that later (when you’re busy being brilliant) the reader can remember that time you screwed up and be comforted by your humanity.

Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. Please. Keep reading…

…while I leap from talking in circles about nothing to sharing my thoughts about the drafting I did this weekend.

I spent Friday night at Lan D. Ho’s house in Austin. As always, an interesting and enjoyable experience. When I showed up Lan had on a brand new pair of super-short high school gym shorts. Powder blue, I think. We met up with some friends for a few hours of Korean-style karaoke. Lan wailed whenever he got his hands on a mic. I watched and bounced and laughed; by choice, a perpetual backup singer. Watched a movie. Slept in. Woke up to find Lan had picked up breakfast from Sonic. He was wearing a different pair of the “brutal honesty” shorts. The sausage sandwiches were awesome. The OJ refreshing. When his younger brother showed up, we headed to Pat’s Games to draft.

On the way, Lan and Tony, who had barely seen the set at all asked me about the basic
strategies. Even though I’d never drafted before, I had slept at a Holiday Inn the night before last, so I told them everything I knew:

1) Most likely you’ll end up in three colors,
2) The lands are much better fixers than the obelisks and should be taken aggressively,
3) Often, you’ll get a second splash for free,
4) 8-mana (for the cycling spells and the gigantic creatures) will happen enough,
5) Exalted seems good, as long as the ability is tacked on an otherwise mana-efficient body.

Not much, I know, but it was a start. As I looked through my first pack in my first draft in the new format, I was immediately forced to consider what seems to me to be one of its defining tensions. The two best cards in the pack were Rhox War Monk and Sanctum Gargoyle. Obviously, the Rhino is the more powerful card and the Gargoyle, being much easier to cast, allows much more flexibility during the rest of the draft.

How much more powerful is the former? If played on turn 3, it demands hasty removal while being out of range of much of that, and will dramatically swing the life totals and board position whether it’s connecting or not. The Gargoyle, though excellent, can’t actually tangle with the larger bodies that you can expect to come up against regularly, and provides only a third of the life swing.

How much easier to cast is the Gargoyle? By obvious calculations, three times easier. But what about in terms of your actual expectations for how an average Shards draft will end up. If you’re gonna be three allied colors in every draft, then about 3/5’s of the time, the gargoyle will make your deck, whereas the Monk will only fit one out of five. Of course, the splashed fourth color should be common enough that the Gargoyle actually has a good chance of making any deck you end up with (if you want it to), and the 3/4 can be accommodated in base Esper or Naya. The short of it is, if you take the War Monk, you’re making a pick that only pays off if white is one of your three base colors.

I’ve been on a flexibility kick since LLL drafts, so I settled on the Sanctum Gargoyle. I didn’t take notes during the draft, but here are some of the interesting things I remember about it: in the third pack, I got a third pick Sigil of Distinction and was kind of shocked that it went that late; after my first pick, I didn’t let another gargoyle pass me and ended up with five; I failed to see either a blue or black Capsule; and, I took Guardians of Akrasa fairly high to shore up the ground while improving my aerial assault. Here’s what I ended up with:

1 Metallurgeon
1 Battlegrace Angel
5 Sanctum Gargoyle
3 Guardians of Akrasa
1 Dawnray Archer
1 Kederekt Leviathan
1 Tidehollow Sculler
1 Tidehollow Strix
1 Deft Duelist

1 Brilliant Ultimatum
1 Covenant of Minds

1 Resounding Wave
1 Agony Warp
1 Hindering Light
1 Esper Charm

1 Oblivion Ring

1 Sigil of Distinction

1 Arcane Sanctum
1 Seaside Citadel
1 Crumbling Necropolis
1 Esper Panorama
5 Plains
4 Island
3 Swamp

In the first of three rounds, my opponent was focused on Exalted, so much so that he was playing Akrasan Squire and Sighted-Caste Sorcerer. The mechanic is strong enough to push a lot of damage through quickly, but his men were so naturally small that they couldn’t effectively attack into my looping Gargoyles. I think it’s wise to avoid collecting men just because they have the Exalted ability. As long as their bodies fit their spot in the curve, the ability is gravy, giving you the tactical flexibility of sending one man or many. Sigil was just as good as I though it’d be; it definitely seems like a strong card even if you just put five mana into it, kind of like a Moldervine Cloak with way more flexibility and upside. Battlegrace Angel is a beating, and her Exalted ability more than makes up for the fact that she can’t be morphed turn 3 and flipped up turn 4, provided you’re playing a deck that has creatures beside her (Constructed teaser).

After my initial experiences with Shards Sealed and Draft, many cards have stood out to me for Constructed. The most exciting, both because it seems extremely powerful and just as extremely overlooked, is Mycoloth. With the sacrifice of a single creature (incidentally, the additional cost attached to Natural Order), Mycoloth is a 6/6 that pumps out two tokens a turn. He gets much better the more you feed him, but there’s obvious concern over his vulnerability to Shriekmaw and Terror, Cryptic Command, Oblivion Ring, Unmake, etc. No one wants to play the fool and hand out 2-for-1’s willy nilly. Obviously, it would work out much better if his Devour didn’t actually cost you anything.

After a few days of aborted lists, I ended up here:

Sprouting Thrinax, Elvish Visionary, and Farhaven Elf are obviously excellent fodder for the Mycoloth. Thrinax feeds it on both ends, the Visionary digs for Mycoloth before offering itself up for dinner, and the new Wood Elves obviously have a death wish, bringing about their demise a full turn faster. The Birds and Llanowar Elves aren’t free sacrifices, but there are plenty of situations where they aren’t really contributing anymore and might as well be.

The deck has even more ways of keeping the big guy productive without exposing a lot of upfront investment. Sarkhan Vol’s threaten ability is taken full advantage of in this deck, between Mycoloth and Nantuko Husk. And the planeswalker’s Fires rendition also interacts powerfully with both, getting maximum mileage out of the tokens the former supplies, and threatening a gigantic hasty attacker with either.

Jund Charm gets a lot of mileage out of pairing up with both of those creatures as well. Depending on the game state, you may not want to or be able to sac a single creature to Mycoloth. Once your opponent’s turn is over and you can be sure that you’re safe from Shriekmaw and Wrath of God, just charm some counters onto him. Further, the graveyard-eating mode protects your Mycoloth from Mannequine’d Maws. If you have a lethal Nantuko Husk but can’t get through your opponent’s wall of chump blockers, Jund Charm can go a long way towards clearing the way.

With a little help from Nameless Inversion, the same elves that enable Mycoloth so well, also let the deck play the second best two-drop from last years standard, Wren’s Run Vanquisher. This beater, alongside one-drop mana acceleration and the excellent three drops, allows the deck to immediately exert pressure.

Alternatively, between Sprouting Thrinax, multiple chump blockers that replace themselves, and Nantuko Husk (cashing in on your other chumps), the deck blocks extremely well. The time it buys can set up particularly devastating Pyroclasms. One thing to keep in mind while playing this deck is that even though you will often end up chump blocking, you should try and keep those bodies around, not just for Mycoloth, but also for Nantuko Husk. You want to provide the zombie with all the tools he needs to take down opposing Gougers and Figures and Finks and War Monks.

The random Predator Dragon seems powerful enough to steal plenty of games, but I’m not sure if the mana can really support it. I also considered Broodmate Dragon in that spot. Siege-Gang Commander is probably an option as well, but probably fits better in similar decks packing Bitterblossom and Goblin Assault.

I’ve played a handful of Workstation games with the deck and I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve seen different versions that are more focused on Devour, but I feel like I’ve gotten pretty close to the right mix of synergy and raw power, of strategic focus and flexibility.

The other card that really struck a chord with me over the last two weeks is Battlegrace Angel. I’ve had her in both decks I’ve played with and her impact on the board is immediate and huge. Also, she is out of range of most of the number-based removal that can be expected in Standard. Unfortunately, I haven’t been as successful in putting together a deck around her. I know that it will most likely end up aggro-control — lifegain and higher-end drops usually position you as the control deck against aggro; meanwhile, the angel encourages you to play other, cheaper creatures with it, pushing you towards an aggro role against a true control deck.

People might point out that a deck built around Exalted probably can’t serve up too punishing a beatdown draw, but consider this: the matchups where you want maintain pressure without overly exposing yourself, say by sending in one large attacker while the rest of your men hold the fort, are the same matchups where the Angel’s Exalted-only lifegain is particularly important. And, on the flipside, those matchups where you want to ratchet up the pressure by attacking with everybody in play (though not necessarily playing everybody in your hand) are the same ones that the lifegain isn’t really relevant in. The trick with Exalted, again, is making sure that your creatures have appropriate bodies all of the time.

I know I want four Sigiled Paladin in the deck and three or four Battlegrace Angels, but after that I’m not sure. Rhox War Monk seems pretty devastating, creating a 12-point life swing the turn you play the angel. Incidentally, I’d much rather use her to power up my attackers, than Rafiq of the Many. I want to avoid slipping into mono White control territory (I know it’s not an actual deck at the time, but Idyllic Tutor and Runed Halo provide most of the tools you need to head in that direction); besides, that deck would probably be better served by Divinity of Pride.

The next creature I thought of (in real time, as I was typing… actually, while my fiancée Amber was asking me to set her alarm) was Kitchen Finks, Knight of Meadowgrain following in stream-of-consciousness fashion.

The following is entirely an untested brainstorm, but I want to write it out so I can see what it looks like:

Elspeth seems like he would work well with the idea of sending in a single significant attacker, and he gives you much more value from your lifelink.

Hindering Light might be just a sideboard card but it’s worth noticing for the ways it fights Cryptic Command, often countering the spell and drawing a card for half price. The abundance of first strike means the men that aren’t attacking should be able to put up a decent defensive wall, and the cantripping counter helps keep you from getting blown out while double blocking.

The mana’s just a starting point, and can probably be improved.

Also, it may be that this deck just can’t generate enough pressure quickly enough. I’m always a bit leery of decks with out action on turn 1. Still, I do intend to explore this deck some more. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

Until next time!