Innovations – The Villain Grows Stronger

The metagame is picking up speed; can you keep up? This week’s gauntlet includes a few new faces, and Wolf Run Green is probably at the top of that list. Patrick Chapin breaks it down for you in anticipation of SCG Open: Kansas City.

Technically, the format debuted with a pair of Mono Red decks in the finals of SCG Open: Indy, but the reality is that this format’s origin was the first major tournament where Kessig Wolf Run and Primeval Titan fought side by side. After the Wolf Run Ramp win in Nashville, the archetype took the format by storm , being the most successful Grand Prix Brisbane and 2011 States strategy by far. Grand Prix Brisbane saw a new breed of U/B Control rise up, well suited to defeating the Wolf Run Ramp decks of the day.

Now it’s a week later, and we see the next stage of evolution. Did U/B Control take over the format?

Well, the other breakout strategy from last week was that of Wolf Run Green. With more of a Dungrove Elder angle than a Slagstorm one, this new breed of Wolf Run deck posed a giant question to the format. Did it have its own niche compared to Wolf Run Ramp? Was it a fad? Was it strictly better?  

Last week we suggested that the Dungrove Elder builds could likely become the norm and that there was a good chance the two would become hybridized with each other. Just look at the U/B Control decks that put up such fantastic numbers last week, as well as the U/R style Flores has been advocating recently:

Both are heavily influenced by a desire to defeat Wolf Run Ramp. Both struggle dearly against Dungrove Elder. A Geth’s Verdict and a Black Sun’s Zenith is not exactly a surplus of options when one hits the table, and Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves helps duck under Mana Leak and Dissipate even better. Realistically, U/B needs to drop a Wurmcoil Engine or a Grave Titan (both of which are significantly slower than a Dungrove Elder).

Flores is in even worse shape. Slagstorm is not a great option against the Elder, so for the most part Flores is resigned to trying to stall a little with some chump blocking and trying to assemble 20 direct damage. These strategies were among the most effective against Wolf Run Ramp, so the adoption of Dungrove Elder sending them back to the drawing board is huge.

The results from SCG Open: Baltimore are in. The deck of the weekend was definitely Wolf Run Green. The technology to defeat the strategy is surely out there, but it has not been uncovered yet. Of the five green-based Wolf Run decks in the top 16, four were Dungrove Elder builds (the other being traditional Valakut style), including an all Dungrove Elder finals.

Here were the top two finishers:

With nearly identical builds, this is definitely the deck to beat and the deck that should occupy the top seat in this week’s playtest gauntlet. Even when the format adjusts to this strategy, it is not going to disappear. The cards are that strong, and the hate just isn’t that devastating.

Last week, the Dungrove players did not seem to agree on whether to play one or two Kessig Wolf Runs, though we now have strong evidence to favor two. This naturally leads players to wanting a second Mountain (since you do want to activate both at the same time, sometimes).

Whereas many players initially had only a couple Primeval Titans, we see once again the move towards the playset, as well as quite a few Green Sun’s Zeniths. It is interesting that Garruk Relentless has dropped off in popularity a bit, but if anything, this should just be a reminder that Garruk, Primal Hunter is definitely the better Garruk (in general). Where are those Chandra, the Firebrands, now? Garruk, Primal Hunter is the best planeswalker in M12? Shocking!

Garruk is just a good card in its own right, but the combination with Dungrove Elder is incredible. So often, opponents will get on the plan to chump block your 6/6 hexproof guy. If you can drop a Garruk and just use it to draw an entirely new hand, you are going to be in really good shape. Not only is Dungrove Elder huge (perfect for Garruk), he also can’t get blown out by most removal spells (ensuring your Garruk isn’t “wasted”).

Thrun, the Last Troll out of the sideboard lets you punish those same U/B and U/R players that Dungrove Elder is so good against. We are definitely going to be seeing more Geth’s Verdicts, Tribute to Hungers, Liliana of the Veils, and Day of Judgments in the weeks to come. We have to get creative for solutions, though we should also keep in mind that sometimes the solution is to race.

Access to Ancient Grudges and a Viridian Corrupter suggests that artifacts are not going to be the way to top Wolf Run Green. Tempered Steel was often effective against Valakut, but they didn’t have access to Ancient Grudge

Blasphemous Act is a nice new tool to help provide that sweeper action without needing the double red that Slagstorm requires. Rolling Temblor would be okay if we knew that the creatures we needed to kill were all small (like Geist of Saint Traft), but here it is more important to kill opposing Dungrove Elders. It is easy to imagine Blasphemous Act costing eight mana and rotting in our hand. That isn’t how it plays out, however. We don’t have spot removal, so our opponent’s Llanowar Elves, Birds of Paradise, and Solemn Simulacrums accumulate in play (as do our own).

Relying on a key permanent to try to hate out a Dungrove Elder player is often unreliable, due to their Beast Withins and Green Sun’s Zenith to find Acidic Slime. The combination of high threat density, card advantage, versatile removal, and a powerful endgame make this strategy far more durable and robust than one might assume. That it has adapted to include a strong hexproof theme only further constricts the options available in the format to combat it.

While Wolf Run Green may be the deck of the weekend, it is not necessarily the most futuristic. The new breakout deck was Mono-Black Infect, a deck that was showing up in small numbers in previous weeks but is well-suited to where the metagame has gone. Putting two in the top 8 and two more in the top 16, Mono-Black Infect has finally arrived. Here are the top two finishers with the strategy:

This new breed of Mono-Black Infect is really a Mono-Black Control deck that happens to have a number of threats that can kill very fast, to make up for the lack of card draw. Without a realistic ability to take full control, this pseudo-control lasts long enough to finish the opponent off with a Skithiryx or a Lashwrithed infect creature and has an almost tap-out control feel to it. Instead of Mana Leaks and Dissipates we have Distresses and Despises. The plethora of spot removal including Lilianas and Tribute to Hungers give us plenty of ways to buy ourselves time and stop early threats (including Dungrove Elder), while we try to build a monster that will kill in two hits. Lashwrithe plus Plague Stinger or Phyrexian Crusader is often a two-turn clock that can be difficult to block. Skithiryx often only needs two hits (thanks to cards like Virulent Wound, Tezzeret’s Gambit, and Inkmoth Nexus). In fact, it isn’t that uncommon to drop a Lashwrithe, equip it to Crusader or Stinger and get one good hit in and then get Day of Judgmented, to which a Skithiryx is a lethal follow-up.

Phyrexian Crusader is just excellent in the format right now. Galvanic Blasts, Slagstorms, Incinerates, Brimstone Volleys, Oblivion Rings, Geist of Saint Traft, Champion of the Parish, Elspeth, and more mean that most opponents have diminished removal. Additionally, Doom Blade is the most common black removal spell, giving Phyrexian Crusader half of protection from black on top of everything else. He even is protected from Victim of Night, being a Zombie. His weakness has always been Dismember, but the format has greatly adjusted to the existence of the card. Now that everyone has access to -5/-5 for one mana, no one wants to be the guy playing creatures that match up poorly against it. If no one plays cards that are good to kill with Dismember, people won’t want to play Dismember any more. A similar situation happened a couple times back when Path to Exile was legal. Everyone cut their Chameleon Colossi and Demigods of Revenge because of Path, so some of us started cutting our Paths. Last week, there were zero Dismembers in the Top 8 of the GP. This weekend, there were only six Dismembers in the Top 8 of Baltimore, many of which were only sideboarded.

Phyrexian Vatmother is another powerful creature that has suffered greatly from the existence of Dismember. While too slow for our maindeck, it does provide an excellent answer to red decks that will have trouble dealing with such a large body. It also provides another good threat against U/B Control decks to replace some of our “bad” removal spells. Besides, Inkmoth Nexus has everyone overly reliant on Doom Blade over Go for the Throat. I agree we can’t really go for throats, but Victim of Night is the targeting black removal spell of the future. It is harder to cast, but being able to kill Skithiryx, Vatmother, and the Gravefather (Grave Titan) is big.

Another black creature we haven’t talked about, which is also quite important, is Whispering Specter. Plague Stinger costing three isn’t that big a deal, but the upside is potentially huge. The ability to completely Mind Twist people turn four is such an incredible option against control and ramp. Turn three Specter, turn four Lashwrithe is generally game if uncontested.

Speaking of Lashwrithe, Lashwrithe is basically the incentive to play Mono-Black instead of U/B. It is a fine body if we need to defend ourselves against aggro; however its real strength is in turning all of our poison threats into one- or two-turn clocks without needing to spend any mana to equip. The ability to equip immediately for no mana makes Lashwrithe effectively have “haste.” That all our other creatures have infect makes Lashwrithe effectively have double strike.

While Mono-Black’s threats are all very easily defeated with a gain of value if you have the right reactive cards (Geistflame against Whispering Specter, Ancient Grudge against Lashwrithe, Dismember against the entire deck), the threats kill so fast, you have almost no time at all to react if you draw the wrong ones (Geistflame against Crusader, Grudge against Skithiryx). I do think that Mono-Black lacks the resilience of Wolf Run Green, so when people adjust, it will take a major hit. However for the time being, it is well positioned, and as long as people have to focus on Wolf Run Green, hopefully its weaknesses are not held under the spotlight too much.

Many people have not actually tested much against Mono-B, which was excusable back when it was fringe. Now that it has entered the mainstream and is so well positioned, it is definitely worthy of a spot in this week’s gauntlet.

The next deck I think belongs in the gauntlet is some breed of U/B Control. Finding a way to tune U/B to be able to combat Dungrove Elders is going to take some ingenuity, but there are a lot of possible ways to do this. Here is one such attempt, though it is probably not how I would do it:

Using much of the skeleton of Neeman’s U/B Control, Pregent replaces the sixes for Reassembling Skeletons and Swords of Feast and Famine. Reassembling Skeleton isn’t the sexiest card in the format, but it is pretty good against all this burn, and it can block Dungrove Elder forever. It combines well with Forbidden Alchemy, and like we discussed in the M11 set review , Reassembling Skeleton is a reliable way to make sure you always have someone to carry your equipment. Both Reassembling Skeletons and Sword of Feast and Famine are excellent tools against Dungrove Elder decks, as is a third Ghost Quarter main.

Another interesting feature of Pregent’s list is the adoption of Stoic Rebuttal. Has the format really gotten to a place where we want more than four Cancels? This is all Primeval Titan’s fault!

Spellskite is a deceptively strong sideboard card, as it has a number of cute new favorable interactions. First of all, it is quite effective at messing up red removal such as Geistflame, Gut Shot, Galvanic Blast, and so on. In addition, it is actually really annoying for anyone with a Kessig Wolf Run. Obviously they can Acidic Slime or Beast Within it, but the point is they have to before they can use their namesake.

Which build of U/B Control should be in your gauntlet, Neeman style or U/B Blade? I would recommend testing against whichever looks harder for your deck. Do you find sixes or Blades more challenging? Personally, I can’t get over how dead U/B Blade is against Curse of Death’s Hold

Of course U/B Blade isn’t the only way to Blade. Jeremy Sunnell top8ed with a very traditional Caw-Blade style of U/W Blade:

For the most part, this is pretty standard fare, though there are a few interesting advancements. First of all, the use of Geist of Saint Traft has Angelic Destiny making its way into the deck. This is not in place of Swords, but as a complement to them. Turn three Geist, turn four Destiny is a turn five kill all by itself, solving the Primeval Titan problem quite nicely.

Gitaxian Probe just to take a peek is interesting. Having used Gitaxian Probe in old-school Caw-Blade on multiple occasions, I agree the info can be quite valuable. Besides, now that we have Snapcaster Mage, there is more reason than ever. In a related note, I’d like to call attention to the lack of Midnight Hauntings. Yes, it is cute with Snapcaster Mage, but I am not really seeing that battle being that relevant right now. If the format ever goes too far towards black removal, sure, that starts sounding great.

Apostle’s Blessing is an amusing trick that can protect a key threat, protects Angelic Destiny, and can be a lot of damage with Geist of Saint Traft. Having one or two of a bunch of very different types of sorceries and instants also makes your Snapcaster Mages better, since you have more options for what to do with them.

Rounding out the mainstream blue strategies, we have AJ Sacher with Solar Flare:

While we have definitely taken more than a few shots at the Solar Flare strategy in recent weeks, it is important to note that the deck is full of good cards and has its merits. Good cards with good synergy, Solar Flare has been plagued by its subpar manabase and being poorly positioned against Wolf Run Ramp. The move towards Dungrove Elders doesn’t really hurt Solar Flare as much as it hurts U/B and U/R, thanks to Day of Judgments and Lilianas.

AJ’s build has a number of nice tweaks that helped make it a solid choice. First of all, he lightens up a bit on the Sun Titan + Phantasmal Image + Unburial Rites aspect of the deck. That is a good plan, but focusing on it too much leaves the Solar Flare player with fewer good options. Wurmcoil Engine is an excellent card right now and a great way to diversify threats. Trimming Images and Rites gives AJ a little more room for control elements, allowing him to find a place on the Solar Flare <-> Esper Control spectrum that worked for him.

Unfortunately, AJ’s manabase isn’t that much better than old Solar Flare lists. He has included some Ghost Quarters to help combat Wolf Run, making up for them with an increase in tapped lands. He may be stuck playing an awful lot of his lands tapped, but at least he has a good mix of duals to make his colors. I still don’t love Solar Flare’s positioning or manabase, but it does appear to be getting a little less hostile, and AJ’s version definitely looks tuned well. Solar Flare is still so popular, it is well worth including it as the fourth gauntlet deck.

Obviously if you have time to test against more than five decks, great, but if your testing time is limited, it is important to pick a good mix of gauntlet decks to give you an accurate feel of the metagame, as well as an idea of the extremes in the format. Ramp is definitely going to get that first spot, leaving room for two control-ish decks and two aggro or midrange decks. This means out of U/B Control, U/B Blade, U/W Blade, Solar Flare, and so on, you are going to dedicate at most two of the spots in the gauntlet to these strategies (though which two is up to you).

We already mentioned that it is crucial to have Mono-Black Infect get one of the two midrange/aggro slots this week. The other slot is probably either Mono-Red or G/W Tokens. While it doesn’t seem to get that much press, G/W Tokens is a strategy that has been putting one person in just about every single Top 8 everywhere. Like Solar Flare, it seems to be having trouble sealing the deal as opposed to Wolf Run, U/B, U/W, or Mono-Red. That said, perhaps it is a matter of better tuning it against the decks at the top. Here is the most recent top 8 list:

This is an example of the basically Mono-White Honor of the Pure style of G/W Tokens, as opposed to the Garruk Relentless/Overrun builds that also see play. Elspeth continues to be the flagship, though interestingly Sturtz doesn’t complement them with any Geist-Honored Monks, preferring to keep his curve lower. Doomed Traveler has been increasing in popularity recently, a trend that is likely to continue. Tukatongue Thallid would be playable if it were legal today, as 1/1s are much more relevant cards than they used to be. Additionally, Doomed Traveler is an upgrade, as there is a big difference between a 1/1 Suntail Hawk and a Mons’s Goblin Raider

Shrine of Loyal Legions is actually pretty underrated in the format, right now. It doesn’t get powered up by Honor of the Pure, but it does provide a big incremental advantage that can easily win a game all by itself. It is this deck’s Bitterblossom. While it can be destroyed more easily than Bitterblossom, it increases your chances of winning by double digits in the games you draw it.

As we mentioned, this style is almost mono-white, except for the Gavony Township, which makes the archetype possible in the first place. The one green card Sturtz uses is Naturalize, a card that I love in the format right now. Between Oblivion Ring, Shrine of Burning Rage, Shrine of Loyal Legions, Intangible Virtue, Curse of Death’s Hold, Inkmoth Nexus, Lashwrithe, Sword of Feast and Famine, and more, this is a fast, cheap, reliable, and versatile removal spell that is rarely dead.

So, looking at the results from this past week, it would seem our gauntlet is looking like:

1) Wolf Run Green

2) U/B Control

3) Mono-Black Infect

4) Mono-Red or G/W Tokens

5) Solar Flare (although you could also replace this one with Mono-Red or G/W Tokens if you wanted)

Remember, this is just a general recommendation based on the national and international metagame. It is much more important to select a gauntlet that reflects the decks you will face in your tournament. If your local metagame is a little skewed, feel free to skew your gauntlet to match.  

Wolf Run Green seems to be increasing its stranglehold over the format. I’ll be back on Wednesday to look at ways every strategy in the format can get some much-needed edge back from it. See you then!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

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