Innovations – Johnny Who? How A Spike Got His Beatdown Back

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Tuesday, October 27th – Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin takes a lingering look at the new Standard metagame, and suggests a host of ideas and decklists aimed at bringing down the formidable Jund Machine. He also touches on Zendikar Limited, after his sterling performance at Grand Prix: Tampa Bay.

I just got off the plane a couple hours ago, putting an end to a whirlwind road trip revolving around Pro Tour: Austin and Grand Prix: Tampa Bay, as well as a week in the “Run Good Club Mansion” and a week with two of Florida’s most hospitable hosts, Kitt and Megan Holland. The Pro Tour went well for several of my teammates, though I personally played and performed poorly. I did realize that I was burning the candle at both ends, and made a concerted effort to take better care of myself in the week that followed, leading up to the GP this past weekend in Florida.

Just as a warning, this article is going to be primarily about Standard. I just want to share a few thoughts on this past weekend before I jump into all of that. I learned a few things this weekend, and was reminded of a few things I already knew but perhaps did not really have in perspective.

Day 1, I had only two byes (not showing up to Kyoto cost me…). I played in two Grand Prix Trials, but as they were sealed deck, I did not win. I say this not to say anything negative about Sealed, as it was not luck that held me back. I am just saying that sealed deck is my worst format by a mile.

I have posted the following records in draft portions of premier events in the past two years:

Grand Prix Daytona ’07 – 4-2
World’s ‘07 – 5-1
US National’s ‘08 – 5-1
World’s ‘08 – 3-3
PT Hawaii ‘09 – 5-1
US National’s ‘09 – 4-2

As you can see, while this record is pretty solid, it is quite odd when held next to my records at sealed premier events during the same time span:

Grand Prix Daytona ‘07 – 37th
Grand Prix Indianapolis – Failed to make Day 2
Grand Prix Kansas City – Failed to make Day 2
Grand Prix Atlanta – Failed to make Day 2

Now this is only three events, but still, I have not advanced past a sealed portion of a Limited GP in almost two years. Not surprisingly, this has taken a toll on my confidence in my own abilities regarding sealed. I have not really had great pools, but they have been good enough and I have been able to identify at least one match at each of those events that I could have won with tighter play.

Flash forward to this past weekend. Some of my friends have long since been joking that I shouldn’t even bother playing in sealed GPs, since obviously they are a weak spot in my game. However, going into this GP, I actually practiced sealed deck a bit (whereas usually, I never practice it). I also studied with Michael Jacob; while he has some different ideas on card evaluations, he is someone that plays a lot more sealed than I do and whose skill is something for which I have a great deal of respect. I have also rediscovered my roots, and turned back into a beatdown player… and what better time is there for this than in Zendikar?

My sealed pool was okay, but I don’t want to get into specific card choices or builds, as I am trying to avoid this becoming a Limited article. The long and the short of it is that I think I did a good job building my pool, which definitely had a few different possible builds (which lead to some crazy sideboarding, removing entire colors). I managed to escape from the sealed portion with a record of 7-2 (courtesy of two byes), which I would have to consider a good 7-2, as I had to fight to death to get some of those wins, playing tighter than I have all year. I also think it is exceptionally unlikely that there is anything I could have reasonably done in the two matches I lost that would have changed the outcome.

I will tell you one thing: it felt really good to end the day in happy reflection, actually feeling like I played well. I have played very well in playtesting, but on a few occasions lately, I have not been on top of my game during some events. Even though 7-2 is hardly a record to write home about, I felt like I earned it and would not have even gotten that score had I not been at the absolute top of my game. For instance, one game I was Mind Sludged for five on turn 5 and I couldn’t even beat the board, let alone any cards in my opponent’s hand. I almost conceded, but imagined a line of play that would give me chances if I forced my opponent to play the right type of game.

I had Day of Judgment in my deck somewhere, and I imagined a way that I could sculpt the game such to create an opportunity to get back all of my lost cards with it if I could just get the board cluttered enough. I fought and I fought and I fought, buying time and complicating things, buying myself a few extra turns, eventually leading to the final opportunity, where I sprung my trap, throwing everything away to get some damage in, casting Day of Judgment then dropping a Kraken Hatchling I had been sandbagging (I only had five land at this point, as I had been pitching every extra land to Looters, trying to keep up). The Hatchling picked up ol’ Trusty and finished the job.

After a quiet night of no partying or craziness, I get a good night sleep and awaken to my first draft portion of a GP in quite a while. I have a couple of tough pods, but manage to 5-1 after drafting B/R Burn (9 creatures, 3 Needlebite Trap, 1 Spite Barrage, 1 Unstable Footing, 2 Hideous End, 1 Blood Tribute, etc) and B/u Vampires (Tons of Vampires and Feast in Bloods with Crypt Rippers, Mind Sludge, 3 bounce spells, and a Welkin Tern off three Blue/Black dual lands and a few Island).

Another day of tight play and smart Magic left me feeling good, despite a disappointing 17th finish on account of tie breaks (with the same record as 9th place). Still, it felt good to be playing good Magic, and I am going to continue to diligently refocus my preparation to include getting the proper rest, nutrition, and so on that is most conductive to winning at Magic (at least for me). I love to have fun, no question, but I am going to have fun regardless; maybe I am just old, but I just can’t play my A game when I am so fatigued.

Next on my agenda? Cracking the code for Worlds. Contrary to some forum dwellers, I am in fact invited to Worlds, this time on Pro Points. I am preparing with the Run Good Club once again, and am looking forward to preparing three formats with only a short amount of time available. Since I play so much compared to many, I think this offers me an opportunity to get edge on deck versus the field, especially in Standard.

What will I play in Extended? I am not sure yet, but I have to admit (not that I am back on the beatdown train) it is difficult to imagine not playing beatdown. Draft? That one is easy, I am looking heavily to Red or Black Aggro. My personal preference is:

Tier 1: Mono-R, Mono-B, R/B
Tier 2: R/W, B/U

I rarely play other color combinations, and I do not see any realistic circumstance in which I play Green. Of course, there is enough Green for some people to play it, but I have found that I personally don’t win nearly as much when I play it, and think I have a recipe that I can count on with R and B aggro decks.

Standard? Let’s just say that now that I have embraced my desires that can only be fulfilled in the Red Zone, there is no telling what I could play. Don’t get me wrong, I still think Bloodbraid Elf and Cruel Ultimatum are the best cards by a mile, but I have played both in beatdown decks before, so it is not out of my range.

While Pro Tour: Austin has been capturing the spotlight on behalf of the Extended format, a new Standard has been gradually emerging, a Standard that is ripe with opportunity. While people are quick to point to the early dominance of Jund, that should be of little surprise to astute tournament players who realize that Zendikar is so new that it is only logical that this holdover from Alara Block (with better mana) is the initial deck to beat.

As oppressive as I think Bloodbraid Elf (and his cohorts Sprouting Thrinax, Blightning, Putrid Leech, and Bituminous Blast), I have to say that I don’t think we will have a situation like Faeries was last year. Oh, I think Bloodbraid Elf will be one of the most popular and dominant strategies, as well as the defining card of the format, but I think there is a lot you can do to fight Jund.

First of all, you don’t want to try to “hose” Jund. “Hosing Jund” is about as effective as “Hosing Faeries.” There is no silver bullet, no magic potion (Great Sable Stag was obviously amazing, but it took 71 other cards designed with Faeries in mind too). If you want to beat Jund, your fundamental strategy has to be sound, with all of your card choices taking Jund into consideration. This is not to say that every single card you play must be golden against Jund, but rather that you need to employ a strategy that can beat Jund through and through, without relying on any one card.

Let’s take a look at the build with which Jack Wang won the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia:

Four other Jund decks made the Top 8 with him, and all five decks were strikingly similar, with the only slight variations being with the numbers of Garruks and removal spells, as well as whether or not Great Sable Stag is included.

Such a universal adoption of almost the exact same decklist leads one to conclude that, at least thus far, this is pretty much Public Enemy #1 and the first deck in your gauntlet. If you can’t play a good game against Jund, then you really need to consider reworking your brew.

Putrid Leech, Sprouting Thrinax, and Bloodbraid Elf are pretty clearly “The Good Creatures” and are auto four-ofs in this deck (and many others), but the Great Sable Stags seem likely to fall out of favor, and Broodmate Dragon kind of sucks now.

First of all, Great Sable Stag seems sweet when you think of blocking Leech or Thrinax, being un-Terminate-able, un-Pulse-able, and strong against Vampires, Wall of Denial, and more, but the problem is a similar one to that which has always plagued Troll Ascetic. At the end of the day, you are paying for a Trained Armodon, with the Stag even having the added drawback of a major Achilles Heel to Lightning Bolt.

One of the most notable features of the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open was the near universal failure of Vampires. This archetype performed awfully, and its existence is supposed to be part of the argument in favor or the Stag. To make matters worse, Gatekeeper of Malakir is very popular, and permission hasn’t been popular at all, making me suspect if is not time for the Stag.

The fall of Broodmate Dragon (that I foresee coming) is really rooted in the fact that the whole reason Broodmate enjoyed such success before was because of its effectiveness against Spectral Procession decks. There are simply not as many of those as there used to be.

Many will be quick to point out that Broodmate Dragon was abandoned by many Five-Color players last season, but remember, everyone that plays Jund plays him these days. Why? I think he is just grandfathered in. His natural prey is gone, and the new format calls for a new kill card… but what?

Ob Nixilis, the Fallen?
Malakir Bloodwitch?
Chandra Nalaar?
Hellkite Charger?
Bogardan Hellkite?
Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund?

There are plenty of other options, especially if we open the floodgates by considering White or Blue. The question of whether or not to add one or more colors is probably the most fundamentally important question a Bloodbraid Elf player is going to have to ask themselves, as this is where the road diverges sharply.

Let’s look at just Jund for a moment, setting aside the various four-color and five-color possibilities. Obviously, the primary advantage to such a plan is going to be the manabase, since other than that, adding the other colors will almost surely add power as well as options. Is Jund manabase really so good that it is worth giving up things like Cruel Ultimatum, Baneslayer, and Esper Charm?

So far from my testing, the Jund manabase is overrated. For a three-color deck that is supposed to have its mana be one big free roll, I was disappointed. Twenty-five land with no raw card draw or filtering is inconsistent enough as it is; add to this the fact that there are no Treetop Villages, no Mutavaults, no Wastelands, no Tranquil Thickets, and we find all together too many dead draws in the mid or late game. The issue isn’t really with getting its colors, as it actually does a pretty good job of this, but rather just an issue of floods on account of 25 lands that can’t be spells, as well as mana screw from trying to cast six-drops with only 25 land and no draw.

The solution? I think you have got to address this fundamental problem either by adding real card draw (like Sign in Blood or Grim Discovery, if not another color) or by adding lands that do things or make lands do things (like Oran-Rief, the Vastwood or some amazing landfall or card filtering, i.e. Retrace type effects). Let’s look at possible executions of these ideas.

As you can see, I have done a few things different with this build. First of all, Broodmate Dragon is so three months ago, as we discussed, and here I experiment with Chandra Nalaar instead (original Chandra, a.k.a. The Baneslayerslayer). In addition, I have moved the curve around to be lower, and I include Sign in Bloods for extra card advantage. Jund Charm is also a new element compared to most lists, but it is one that I think is particularly valuable with Boros Bushwhacker on the rise (and rightfully so, as that deck is solid). The Jund Charm also has exciting applications with Vampire Nighthawk, and is not the worst flip with Bloodbraid Elf against no permanents, since you have Leech, Thrinax, and Nighthawk to pump. Besides, who knows if you might face some joker with Time Sieve that needs to be brought back to reality?

The Vampire Nighthawks are an experiment to replace the Great Sable Stags, which have not impressed me. Obviously they are kold to Lightning Bolt, a popular card, but they won’t always have it, you have Blightnings, and they are definitely going to want to Bolt your Leech if they can. Basically, creatures like Nighthawk and Baneslayer get better, in general, when you have more guys, since the removal can only go so far, and every turn a creature like that is left unmolested, you can gain a huge edge. I also enjoy the interaction with Nighthawk and Jund Charm, as it not only lives through it, but does a great job of either tying up the board forcing them to over-commit or to race, while keeping your life total high, to accomplish a similar task. It might be right to play even more Jund Charms, but I also try to keep in mind the classic Jund problem of a glut of three-drops. Maybe cutting a Nighthawk for one is an option?

The lack of Maelstrom Pulse main deck is for this very reason, though it is probably a must out of the board, if nothing else. Besides, Pulse does lose a little value with so many other people playing the same guys as you.

The sideboard is pretty straightforward with the most interesting card being the block sideboard special of Slave of Bolas, which was designed to kill Sprouting Thrinax, but can also be quite adept at killing a Baneslayer if it needs to.

I think that whatever you end up doing with a Jund deck, it has got to be teched out for the mirror. This $5K is far from the only spot where Jund has been overwhelmingly popular. RIW Hobbies in Livonia had a big FNM recently, and nearly 60% of the field was armed with Jund, a dangerous trend especially for a venue that has such a strong field.

You might be asking, “what if I don’t want to play Jund?” The fundamental question you have to ask yourself is how are you going to overcome the unrelenting stream of card advantage of Jund with its cascades, Blightnings, Thrinax, Broodmate, Planeswalkers, and so on.

It is tempting to load up on “hate cards,” such as guys with Pro: Black or Pro: Red, and try to battle on the ground, but the problem is that they have answers to everything you might want to play, and if your guy is weak to ANY of their removal, they will find it and use it. You can’t even punish them that hard in the meantime.

Here are some deck concepts that “supposedly” have game against Jund. I will leave it to the reader to decide for themselves just how true they think this is.

Each of these decks tries to attack Jund a different way. The Boros deck hits hard, at times enjoying such a tempo advantage that Jund doesn’t have time to capitalize on its two-for-ones (hence my Jund Charm suggestion). In particular, the play of Ranger of Eos fetching one or both Bushwhackers is deceptively strong, putting the opponent at constant risk of a surprise attack.

The Grixis deck is yet another “Cruel Ultimatum plus other cards” deck, this time trying to trade the power of White and Green for better mana. Personally, I am still drawn to more colors, but it gives another perspective on how a control player may want to attack the format (or so I hear from people who still play control…).

The main points to emphasize with it are the need to adopt Sphinx of Jwar Isle. It is not close, this guy is the future. If I could pick one card out of this set that is currently misevaluated and will come to be known as a superstar, it is the Sphinx of Jwar Isle. I saw all the dealers selling it for $2 or so relatively recently at an event. If I were a gambling man, and I am not saying I’m not, I would bet dollars to donuts that they are paying more than that to try to buy them back by the end of the year.

The Sphinx of Jwar Isle can be found in the Unstable Terrain Precon, nearly assuring a cap on its value, but as it is, the price of Sphinx of Jwar Isle is nowhere near the price tag of a precon, yet. It is easy to get this guy right now. Do yourself a favor and at least get a play-set. You will be happy you did.

The way this deck fights Jund is by trying to assemble the combination of Cruel Ultimatum and lands that cast it. Usually, this combination is game-winning against Jund, though it can be difficult to survive to that point if you are not well equipped.

The final deck is a possible port of the Esper Stoneblade deck Neil Reeves designed for Alara Block Constructed, as piloted by Brian Kibler and Paul Rietzl in Hawaii earlier this year. The most drastic change is the addition of Baneslayer Angel, but it’s a fairly unsurprising one. The deck has so many other guys putting a target on themselves, it has a much better chance of living than some. In addition, this is the kind of deck that can really benefit from tricks like Harm’s Way, Countersquall, or Brave the Elements, so protecting the Queen is a real option. I have not included any Hindering Lights, but that is an option to consider.

Thanks for joining me this week, as I have just started to get to the bottom of the new Standard format. Aside from preparing for Worlds, I want to help others prepare for the State Championships coming up later this year. I wanted to get into some theory on preparing for a tournament like that, but it will have to wait for next week, as I am exhausted from traveling and have to crash.

Thanks to everyone who voted in my poll last week. I will be examining each of the most popular choices next week, pointing out flaws, suggesting improvements, and discussing what niche if any they occupy in the metagame. One last piece of food for thought:

Vampire Aggro has been the worst performing major archetype thus far, not close. Think about this if you are getting frustrated with a local tournament and you are piloting such a deck. It may be fun, but the current formulas people are playing have no chance versus Jund. That is a real bad spot to be right now, so someone needs to come up with a radical change to the Vampire strategy if it is to survive.

See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”