Flow of Ideas – Up Down Dralnu, and The States Dare

Claim your territory at The 2009's State and Provincial Championships!
Wednesday, December 2nd – I want you to play something original at States. Something which will cause passerby to take a double take; that will cause your opponent to agonize while sideboarding; that will go down in history as a fresh creation if it makes Top 8. Let me show you my contribution to the cause…

States has always been a special, one-of-a-kind tournament. It harbors uniqueness that is impossible to capture in any other event, save for a few hallowed FNM’s held in stores around the country the week after a new block is released.

You see, States is different. It’s not about the prize. The potential of free tournaments for a year is a nice bonus, sure, but that’s not what draws you into the tournament. And, despite what some may tell you, it’s not about the honor. The chivalrous hoopla around being State champion makes for little more than a nice footnote in the résumé of a Magic player. No. It’s about feeling the wave of excitement and the rush of innovation and originality that causes your mind to refold its creases each and every round of the tournament.

States is the one tournament where casual and competitive players trek out to the same battlegrounds, each one building on top of the dry riverbank the previous Standard format left behind. It’s the one tournament where casual players step up their game so they can show off their new designs, and competitive players set down their shoulder spikes and brass knuckles to rekindle their dimming casual flame.

States is the event where players throw plot twist after curveball after Hail Mary pass to try and best each other; the tournament where decks that nobody will remember three months from now sit at the top tables and inspire frenzied whispers to skitter among friends, asking if they have seen the deck that just cast Three Dreams for Genju of the Fields and Genju of the Spires — with Sacred Foundry in play. States is a tournament where anything can happen.

Or at least, it should be.

This year, States — or the ‘09’s, as it has been rechristened — falls after Worlds. I don’t fault the Tournament Organizers for this choice. I know they had a string of difficulties in getting the series up and running, and, all things considered, I’m glad we have a State Championship at all.

The problem is that the format is no longer fresh.

Between hundreds of Magic Game Days and hours of Worlds playtesting, the plane of Zendikar has been well explored. Its most well-kept gems have been scavenged from their resting places and put into the hands of mages both hardened and greenhorn alike.

The best deck in the format is clearly Jund. It has been, and will continue to be. Worlds competitors tried a deluge of different angles poised to topple the Jund Godzilla onto electric wires, but the deck bounced off of them like a wrestler pushing against the rope around the ring. If you want the best chance to win States, you should be playing Jund.

Fortunately, there is a lot of room to innovate if you’re willing to reconcile that not everything can stand up to Jund; that there is no patented “Jund-smasher” suite of cards you can stick into your sideboard and bring into your maindeck with a smirk on your face. States is supposed to be fun and innovative, and while there are a few decks that are favored against Jund, they just combat a boring deck with equally boring solutions. To keep this States interesting, it’s going to take a little innovation from a lot of people.

That’s where you come in.

I want you to play something original at States. Something which will cause passerby to take a double take; that will cause your opponent to agonize while sideboarding; that will go down in history as a fresh creation if it makes Top 8.

As a person who played a Three Dreams deck at Ravnica States, who was Proclamationing Martyr of Sands before it was hip at Time Spiral States, who helped pioneer the Mannequin deck at Lorwyn states, I can attest that the joy I have felt from playing something fresh and exciting is unbridled. The thrill of running your well-hidden strategy into your opponent’s well-hidden strategy like two snakes leaping at each other invokes a sense of curious originality Richard Garfield no doubt intended to be present in every game of Magic.

At any tournament, championing originality just leads to bad choices. But for this one tournament, the only reasonably-sized tournament where fun can be valued over walking away with first place, maybe we can try to bring something new to the table.

I’m not asking you take untested homebrews to States. I’m not asking you to avoid playing with good cards. I’m asking you to try new strategies that use cards in unexpected ways. C’mon. I dare you.

Let me show you my contribution to the cause.

This deck is fun.

Ever since Soul Manipulation was released, I have wanted to use it Dismiss-style with Architects of Will. Finally, with States here, I have my opportunity.

I built this deck out of the idea that Soul Manipulation was a strong card against Jund because it offs one of their threats without costing you a card, and is very good “removal” against the variety of creatures with enters the battlefield effects people are playing in this format. The rest of it slowly came together after testing. Originally it was slower and relied on Sphinx of Lost Truths, but those kind of decks just have no chance at all in this format. I’ve built control deck after control deck, and eventually I decided that the control decks have to incorporate aggressive elements to stay interactive and competitive.

Is this the best deck? No, the best deck is Jund. However, this deck has kept pretty good matchups across the field, and I have won enough Magic Online queues with it to prove its competitiveness to me. Most importantly, it’s a deck I enjoy playing.

Let me walk you through the archetype.

The deck is much heavier on Black than Blue, and the manabase reflects that. The three Black fetchlands are just to help with Soul Stair Expedition. I originally had more, but the damage does pile up over time, especially with Sign in Blood. The deck originally had more Gargoyle Castles, but they just weren’t working in a deck that wanted BBB on turn 3.

The manabase is pretty straightforward otherwise, and hasn’t been a problem. Occasionally it’s annoying how many nonbasics I have that they can Ruinblaster, but I feel like they’re all necessary to make the mana work. I suppose Borderposts could be an option, but the life gain off of Jwar Isle Refuge is often quite relevant with how long game can go. There have been a few games where I wished I could have cast my Carabids, but I don’t feel like tapped lands (Crumbling Necropolis) is the way to go since the situation seldom appears.

The creature package is really interesting, and has evolved a significant amount from its original form. 4 Architects of Will is a must, and the number of Carabids can vary from one to four. I like three because, with the addition of Soul Stair Expedition, you want as many early cyclers as possible. Gatekeeper is an obvious inclusion and is great against some of the most popular decks. Even against Sprouting Thrinax he’s great because he kills the 3/3, then they can’t profitably attack with their tokens.

But what about Nighthawk? What is he doing here? Well, he’s an early play that fills an otherwise-gap in the deck. He keeps your life total up while having the capacity to hold back Skyfishers, trade with Broodmate Dragon tokens, and so on. With the ability to rebuy him over and over, the incremental advantage he creates is well worth it.

Originally, I didn’t have Sphinx of Jwar Isle. At one point I had some Fleshbag Marauders, at another I had the fourth copy of Carabid and Sphinx of Lost Truths, and at another I had Malakir Bloodwitch. This deck just wanted a way to close in the end game. You continually attrition them with recurring creatures, but what then? A shroud Sphinx was just the best answer. Six mana is a little high in this deck, but Jwar Isle is well worth it. Even if they do have a way to kill it, you can bring it back, and in this deck you can fearlessly discard it early and then return it later on once you’ve hit six mana.

As for the spells, the removal spell I chose was Agony Warp. I experimented with Disfigure, and while the one mana discount was nice, Agony Warp does so much in this deck. Wretched Banquet kills your own creatures too often. Flashfreeze is just an excellent counterspell right now, and is good against most of the major decks. Even against Boros you can often snag something of value.

Sign in Blood is a strong, underplayed draw spell. The life loss does add up though, so I ended up cutting one because by the time you’ve cast two of them the third starts to seem less attractive in the endgame. The deck also already has a significant draw engine, main the fourth Sign in Blood less necessary.

The core of Up Down Dralnu are the Soul Manipulations and Soul Stair Expeditions. I originally only had Soul Manipulation, but Brian Kowal suggested Soul Stair Expedition and, after testing it, there was no going back. On the surface it seems like a bad draw engine, and if you’re just rebuying cyclers it is, in fact, a worse Ior Ruin Expedition. However, drawing two Gatekeepers, or Gatekeeper/Nighthawk plus a draw spell really puts you ahead on attrition, and lets you keep up with Blightning. Soul Manipulation is just awesome, usually being a better Dismiss.

On one last note, another card you can try maindeck is Kathari Remnant. You can’t really play them alongside Flashfreezes, and I’d rather have Flashfreeze in this deck, but returning Skeletal Kathari a bunch of times is definitely very powerful. It’s a great blocker, and it gives you even more ways to attrition your opponent.

The sideboard is interesting and varied, mostly based on what I keep facing in Magic Online queues. This is how I am sideboarding against what seem to be the two most popular archetypes online, Jund and Boros:

+4 Spreading Seas, +1 Flashfreeze
-2 Vampire Nighthawk, -1 Monstrous Carabid -2 Agony Warp

Nighthawk actually isn’t that great in this matchup because it can’t profitably block anything. I was leaving him in to deal with Garruk and Broodmate, but the latter seldom feels like a problem. Otherwise, this matchup is pretty close. Spreading Seas can buy you a lot of time to do what your goal is: get Sphinx of Jwar Isle in play. If you can cast a Sphinx, you should be in good shape.

Boros Bushwhacker
+3 Infest, +2 Malakir Bloodwitch +2 Fleshbag Marauder
-3 Flashfreeze, -2 Sphinx of Jwar Isle, -1 Sign in Blood, -1 Soul Manipulation

I found I was advantaged against Boros because you can do so many advantageous trades with them. After boarding you have Infest as a pretty big trump. Ranger of Eos is good as always, so try and Soul Manipulation it if possible. Despite that, Soul Manipulation isn’t as awesome in this matchup, so I board one out. Flashfreeze comes out just because it doesn’t hit enough; I would rather have more action cards.

The Into the Roils are a catch-all versus permanents I have a problem against. Random Bloodchief and Luminarch Ascensions, White Knights I wasn’t able to Soul Manipulation on the way down, and planeswalker heavy decks are what I would bring them in against.

Am I completely on this deck for this weekend? Well, I can’t say for sure yet, but right now I’m having a lot of fun playing it and the deck is winning a lot, which is exactly what I’m looking for. We’ll see what changes between now and this Saturday, but I’ll undoubtedly be playing something I find fun at the event. If you play with Up Down Dralnu at all and have any comments or suggestions, feel free to send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com or reply in the forums.

Have fun at States everybody, and I’m looking forward to seeing your innovation abound.

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else