Hypermana Monsters

Valeriy Shunkov highly recommends giving his G/R Monsters list a try in Standard at SCG Open Series: Milwaukee or SCG Classic Series: Raleigh this weekend.

A few days ago I came across a post on our local forums that said, "Here is my projected decklist (just a sketch without lands)." The list was obviously "all the best cards in Naya colors." My instant reaction was, "The mana base is the most interesting part of Standard right now. Anyone could put together all the best cards, but mana is a problem these days. We’re not in Innistrad/Return to Ravnica Standard anymore." The next list that appeared in that topic was two colors, but it didn’t include any lands either and would’ve had significant problems with multiple color-intensive costs.

Previous years taught us to consider mana as something good by default. You could build a poor mana base if you chose the wrong mix of lands, but it could always be fixed. This is not the true anymore. Experiment One, Kird Ape, and Loam Lion are fine in Modern, but you can’t simply play Soldier of the Pantheon and Experiment One together in Standard.

What do we have now? More precisely, what don’t we have these days? Stomping Ground and Karplusan Forest, Copperline Gorge and Rootbound Crag; we are used to two playsets of untapped dual lands. The Alara/Zendikar format was a notable exclusion, but it contained fetch lands and was about three-color decks. These days we have only Guildgates and Temples, which is a huge downgrade for both control and aggro. Midrange decks are affected less, but you still can’t just throw all the good cards together and be happy. GerryT perfectly argued B/R Midrange over B/R/W Midrange some time ago; the two-color version has worse cards but isn’t punished by its own mana base.

Mutavault is one of the best cards of Standard—for good reason. However, complicated mana costs of contemporary cards have led to the obscure situation where Mutavault isn’t an auto-include even in monocolored decks and two- or three-color ones have to carefully consider consistency damage caused by each copy. Colored animated lands could help, but I don’t dream of having Celestial Colonnade again; even Ghitu Encampment would be welcome these days.

Animated lands are almost the perfect way to suppress mana flood, with good utility lands being a close runner-up. Innistrad Block offered us ten utility lands, and almost all of them were playable in Constructed. Current Standard limits us with Mutavault; Grove of the Guardian; Rogue’s Passage; Nykthos, Shrine of Nyx; and Encroaching Wastes. Maze’s End and Thespian’s Stage exist too, but they’re too specific. There’s nothing close to Gavony Township, but more importantly the not Mutavault ones look like win-more cards.

An interesting thing to do in this otherwise poor situation is to build the best possible mana base and then complement it with spells. We have an instant winner in a form of 22 Mountains or sixteen Mountains and four Mutavaults depending on your attitude towards Boros Reckoner and Fanatic of Mogis. The second-best one is much trickier; I’m going to use the hypermana approach invented by one of the world’s best deckbuilders, Zvi Mowshowitz. You can read a detailed description of hypermana deckbuilding in Zvi’s amazing article, and I highly recommend you do so—or at least browse it since I’m going to refer to it throughout the rest of this article. The best-known hypermana deck is Mythic (you can find an example in Zvi’s article if you aren’t familiar with it).

The hypermana approach is green-based since we’re going to use all the available mana acceleration. The deck will be two colors because there is no reason to go into third color. There are many powerful threats in Standard, but the idea of ramping straight into Angel of Serenity or Borborygmos Enraged doesn’t work because there are no reliable ways to cast them early. Hypermana is perfect in a format with Lotus Cobra and Knight of the Reliquary, but we should use it carefully in a format with Voyaging Satyr.

The comparison of different opportunities led me to the G/R Monsters deck. I understand that the deck is known and you’d rather look at the attempt of curving from Archangel of Thune into Angel of Serenity, but not today. Monstrosity is the best possible way to utilize mana flood, while relatively cheap initial costs help you have reasonable early action. I’d be happy to try different colors (or three colors), but the hypermana approach requiring all the best forces me to stay in the known G/R colors. However, G/R Monsters lists differs like Tuesday morning and Friday evening in the office, so the task of finding the best one is not as trivial as you may expect.

This is a pretty standard list. Powerful beaters to ramp into and good acceleration in a form of Elvish Mystic and . . . Satyr Hedonist? Is that mana ramp at all? It even plays four copies of Burning-Tree Emissary, so the deck is more aggressive than mana ramp. However, there is a huge hole in the mana curve when you have a turn 1 Elvish Mystic.

Elvish Mystic and Zhur-Taa Druid without Burning-Tree Emissary and Satyr Hedonist? More reliable and more like mana ramp. This list also contains some ways to take advantage of turn 1 Elvish Mystic.

Hey, look! Better cards in exchange for eight unconditionally tapped lands and a sea of pain. It’s sad there’s no way to cast turn 2 Boros Reckoner, but Loxodon Smiter is fine too in case the second land isn’t a Temple. Temple Garden is fine, but Temple of Abandon and Temple of Triumph aren’t.

What I dislike about these lists is that they look like they were built without understanding how to spend mana. There are numerous ways to use mana suboptimally, which means there are opportunities for upgrades.

The available mana acceleration makes me sad in many ways, but the first and most important problem is the lack of a second mana dork. Recently there has always been "Birds of Paradise plus something," and even last year we had Avacyn’s Pilgrim plus Arbor Elf. This time no one could support Elvish Mystic, and any attempt to use Experiment One or Dryad Militant will inevitably lead us to something very aggressive (which isn’t bad but a very different story).

We can use Elvish Mystic alongside two-mana acceleration, but it will lead us to the awkward situation of excessive mana. Moreover, there’s a notable lack of outstanding three-mana cards in G/R aside from Domri Rade (who is great on any turn and really shines on turn 2 only against control) and Boon Satyr (who is fine but isn’t a game-breaking threat). Another argument against having many three-mana cards is that we actively want to spend turns 3 and 4 casting bigger threats so excessive three-mana cards will lead us to suboptimal mana usage, especially in case of some compromises between three- and four-mana card quantities. Summing up, the lack of a second one-mana accelerant is a good reason to skip the first one too.

Do you remember Valakut? It was mostly about excessive lands, but even builds that actively used nonland acceleration always had Lotus Cobra or Overgrown Battlement rather than Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves just because the mana curve was optimized from 2 to 4 and from 4 to 6. In contrast, Mythic was about casting a five-mana threat on turn 3 via Lotus Cobra or any two of other twelve accelerants. As we have a wide selection of two-mana acceleration, it’s very reasonable to focus on four-mana threats.

Ghor-Clan Rampager, Polis Crusher, Ember Swallower, Polukranos, World Eater, and Deadbridge Goliath are all reasonable, but Ember Swallower and Polukranos, World Eater are the best. Hydra has embedded removal, which is very valuable in an all-mana, all-threats deck; Ember Swallower has a unique pair of power and toughness that perfectly positions it against aggressive decks. Five toughness means "invulnerable to Mizzium Mortars," and four power means "invulnerable to Selesnya Charm." Selesnya Charm is an amazing card; we have already encountered multiple situations where not going monstrous was the right decision while having Polukranos or Deadbridge Goliath would mean a loss.

Polis Crusher is too specific and should wait for its hour, but Ghor-Clan Rampager is something to consider. The card is nearly an auto-include now, but it’s more about being aggro on steroids. Ghor-Clan Rampager is bad on defense since it’s just a plain Rumbling Baloth, and we’re going to cast it against control decks anyway. Rampager is at its best when we want to beat an opposing 4/4 or 1/4 with our 2/2, but that doesn’t sound like a ramp deck, so I’m skeptical about having the Rampager in a proper hypermana deck. Some kind of trick would be useful, but I feel like Boon Satyr fits better into our game plan against both aggressive and control decks. It’s also worth noting that Deadbridge Goliath has an important ability to improve mana dorks in the late game.

A short note: The Standard card pool offers exactly two 4/5s for four mana: Ember Swallower and Reaper of the Wilds. The latter is invulnerable to Doom Blade for free, and other is removal for relatively cheap price—and even has a useful ability! I expect Reaper of the Wilds to see tournament play very soon and to compete with Desecration Demon for slots in B/G decks.

Let’s return to two-mana accelerants, which are going to be the core of our mana curve. The cards (Sylvan Caryatid, Voyaging Satyr, and Zhur-Taa Druid) are not close to Noble Hierarch, Lotus Cobra, and Knight of the Reliquary, so we should step a little bit aside from the canonic hypermana approach and ensure the deck’s consistency. Zhur-Taa Druid is attractive since it’s a threat by itself (a little one but noisy enough against control); Voyaging Satyr could be upgraded by Deadbridge Goliath or Boon Satyr. Sylvan Caryatid can’t attack, but it’s much safer against removal-heavy decks and Mono-Red Aggro. Nearly every cheap red creature aside from Firedrinker Satyr can’t deal with Sylvan Caryatid, and it’s especially important that Firefist Striker is powerless against it.

Voyaging Satyr is weaker than its contenders, but it can work as a mana fixer for complicated red costs, while Zhur-Taa Druid produces only green mana and costs red mana as well. My general opinion is that Sylvan Caryatid is the best in an aggressive metagame, Zhur-Taa Druid is very reasonable in a control-filled one, and the usefulness of Voyaging Satyr will highly depend on our decklist.

Elvish Mystic and Satyr Hedonist don’t fit well into "four mana on turn 3" concept, but as we will probably play Stormbreath Dragon, it’s nice to be able to cast the Dragon on turn 3. My initial list contained full four Elvish Mystics and three Satyr Hedonists alongside eight two-mana accelerants, but it was at the exact point where a concept contradicts real life. Excessive mana dorks constantly cost me testing games, so I was forced to find a minimal quantity to play and put some interactive spells into the maindeck (which is a clear contradiction to the hypermana concept). In theory, Domri Rade would be enough for all these purposes, but I wanted some Mizzium Mortars when I tested. There are lists with six or seven removal spells, but Lightning Strike is excessive in my opinion and is better in aggressive R/G Domri Rade decks.

Before we discuss my list, let’s check Zvi’s seven concepts of hypermana deckbuilding.

1. Your mana base, including your color, has to be ironclad.

Check, given the quality of available cards. There are twelve green sources to play Elvish Mystic, sixteen green sources in general, and ten effective turn 1 plays (two Elves and four tapped lands). The weak point is Zhur-Taa Druid and "just" fourteen red sources to support it, but it’s still very reliable mana base. Two copies of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx were perfect for me, and I highly recommend them. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is exactly what you need to activate monstrosity, while two copies are unlikely to ruin your starting hand.

2. You must be able to turn your mana cards into powerful weapons in their own right.

Conditional check. Sylvan Caryatid can’t attack, and we have no Deadbridge Goliath to improve others. I tried Goliaths, but they constantly underperformed, so I cut them and later found some room for Boon Satyrs for this purpose. Finally, Zhur-Taa Druid is a threat, though just a minor one.

3. The threats you accelerate to must be able to win the game on their own.

Check. The monsters are powerful. Domri Rade and Chandra, Pyromaster provide effective ways to draw more monsters and are useful against creatures, so they end game quickly if left unanswered. This point is also why I completely eschewed Xenagos, the Reveler; he’s not good in winning games by himself.

4. The biggest threat must be powerful enough to overwhelm opponents.

Check. Roses are red, violets are blue, monsters are big and will kill you.

5. You need a way to make your cards keep you alive against aggression.

Check! My excuse for putting Sylvan Caryatid and eight non-mana, non-monster, non-planeswalker cards in the list.

6. Every card must either be mana or a threat.

Fail. I would be happy to maintain this requirement, but there is no way to survive against Mono-Red Aggro in this case.

7. You need a way to not die to mass removal.

Check. Domri Rade and Chandra, Pyromaster are great at digging to more threats after Supreme Verdict. Moreover, we actually need only one mana accelerator to put a monster into play on turn 3, so it’s relatively easy to pressure control decks without overextending.

Five- and-half of the seven requirements are maintained, and I have a good excuses for failing two of them, so I think that this deck is a fine adaptation of the hypermana concept in Return to Ravnica/Theros Standard. I believe my list is better than other variants of G/R Monsters due to the concentration of its primary game plan and reliability.

I have already covered almost the whole maindeck, and very few choices require additional explanation. Scavenging Ooze is vital for any aggressive matchup, and you can consider the fourth copy in the sideboard. The deck is weak to burn spells after some pressure, and Ooze is often enough to put you out of burn range. The same is true for Nylea’s Disciple. The card isn’t amazing, but gaining three life (for the Disciple itself and for one mana dork) is often enough to stabilize.

Other cards against aggressive decks are Anger of the Gods and Flames of the Firebrand. The mix is three plus two because of Scavenging Ooze; this is a case where Anger of the Gods has a drawback instead of an upgrade. Flames of the Firebrand is worse in general but often enough to slow the opponent down. Precise numbers are still subject to extensive testing, but some copies of Arc Lightning certainly belong in this deck. I had a brief conversation with Avery Wilson (whose interesting version of G/R Monsters can be found in the Top 32 of the SCG Standard Open in Worcester), and he said that his updated sideboard contains three copies of Flames of the Firebrand and three copies of Shock, which is very reasonable decision if Mono-Red Aggro players opt for the faster version.

An important note: the matchup against Mono-Red Aggro is troublesome, and the existence of many different builds doesn’t make things easier. I optimized my list against the version of StarCityGames.com Worcester Standard Open winner Philip Bertorelli. The most troublesome cards were Boros Reckoner and Fanatic of Mogis (who was able to gather unfair devotion pre-board), but I was happy the mono-red deck didn’t improve after sideboarding. I found a fine defensive strategy and then decided to test it against some other builds. I was surprised when I realized that Owen Turtenwald decklist contains zero Boros Reckoners and Fanatic of Mogis but is much faster and significantly improves after sideboarding. So be very careful when playing against Mono-Red Aggro and try to identify features of opponent’s list as soon as possible.

Excessive copies of Chandra, Pyromaster are for midrange decks, especially ones with Thoughtseize. We badly need to generate a midgame advantage source in these matchups, so seven planeswalkers is fine. The sideboard also contains Hammer of Purphoros, which is brought in against control alongside Chandra, but I think that the Hammer is very questionable against removal-heavy midrange. There’s Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, who is unquestionably powerful, but I prefer cheaper cards since they’re much easier to resolve.

Destructive Revelry is fine in some matchups, like against the two Whip of Erebos decks in the Top 8 of the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Cleveland, but it’s still the first card to go if needed. As the metagame becomes more certain and more friendly for G/R Monsters, chances for a better sideboard increase. Don’t miss the opportunity to play at SCG Open Series: Milwaukee or SCG Classic Series: Raleigh with G/R Monsters!

Valeriy Shunkov