Introducing Sarkhan Jund

Reid Duke is bringing back some incredible, underused cards in Standard back to the forefront. He went 6-2 in Standard at Nationals with a Jund deck with some crazy ones… Sarkhan the Mad, anyone?

What makes a guy like me play Jund at the National Championship? It’s not that I can’t play Caw-Blade. It’s not that I hate Valakut. It’s not that I always need to be different. I just go a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?

I designed Sarkhan Jund for U.S. Nationals, partly to exploit some weakness of Standard’s top decks, and partly to make use of some great cards that don’t get the respect they deserve. Sarkhan the Mad and Abyssal Persecutor are fantastic in this metagame. The last things that Ramp decks want to see are giant, flying attackers. The last things that Tempered Steel and Caw-Blade want to see are giant, flying blockers—especially if they’re red. I’m happy with the deck and finished 6-2 in the Standard portion, a record which could have been good enough, had I performed better in draft, to put me in the top sixteen or top eight of the tournament.

I couldn’t be happier that Ali Aintrazi, with U/B Control, is our new National Champion. Naturally, though, it makes a part of me jealous that I didn’t play the same deck at Nationals. The metagame has taken a turn that’s very favorable for U/B, as Tempered Steel is now much less of a concern, and the majority of Caw-Blade players have dropped Blade Splicer—one of the scariest cards.

Green, Black, and Red

Three weeks ago, however, I found myself unable to make U/B Control work because of the hard-to-answer threats in Tempered Steel and Caw-Blade. I needed to go back to the drawing board, but where could I begin? Two colors stood out to me as having the tools needed for success.

Black has the best removal in Standard. In fact, it has the only removal that I really consider playable because the other colors fall short against Deceiver Exarch, Consecrated Sphinx, Overgrown Battlement, and Titans. While not everyone shares my love for the color black, many agree with me on this point, as you can see from the number of nonblack decks that still play with Dismember. Having access to Memoricide is also invaluable, as it singlehandedly neuters both Ramp decks and the Splinter-Twin Combo. The one-mana discard spells are just generally excellent.

Green offers mana ramp, which is especially great because of the way expensive spells outclass cheap ones in this environment. Anyone who watched Ali Aintrazi play the top eight knows the advantage that comes with building your deck to support five game breakers (2 Consecrated Sphinx, 2 Grave Titan, 1 Karn Liberated) while most of your opponents have one or two tops. My goal was to load up on green acceleration so that I could effectively skip the three slot on my mana curve and play more spells that dominate a game on their own. The mana acceleration also makes Memoricide more deadly, and green offers Obstinate Baloth and Creeping Corrosion, which, together, take care of every aggro deck that sees play in Standard.

With green and black in mind, my first idea was to go back to a deck that I loved from before the bannings: BUG. Unfortunately, with Jace, the Mind Sculptor gone, blue really only offered Preordain and Ponder. The mana was also awkward because green only came from basic Forests. Most importantly, though, it was immediately clear that the midrange ramp game plan couldn’t work without a powerful four-drop. Four is the critical mana cost because this type of deck can ramp to it fast enough to put a control deck on its heels, but it’s also cheap enough to be castable if your mana creature dies.

Cycling through the fours available in Standard, I next tried a W/G/B deck with Hero of Bladehold. The deck was very solid and had many easy wins when discard could strip a removal spell and Hero of Bladehold could go unanswered. Unfortunately, an equally large fraction of games were lost after my Hero was Dismembered on sight, and I didn’t have a strong follow-up. I wanted my big spells to provide an irreversible advantage when they resolved or at the very least be hard to answer.

I spent a week and a half playing around with a million different builds of Birthing Pod. I liked the card itself, and I liked the idea of having a bunch of enters the battlefield effects, but I didn’t like the strategy overall. The bottom line is that Birthing Pod is a slow card that isn’t good to draw in multiples, and therefore isn’t worth building around. If I happened to have a mana curve that went smoothly from one to six with lots of creatures that I didn’t mind sacrificing, then sure, I’d play two or three copies of Birthing Pod. The minute I added a Tuktuk the Explorer to my deck, though, I knew I was headed in the wrong direction.

I next turned to Goblin Ruinblaster, which is a devastating turn 3 play against control. Unfortunately, with blue decks leaning a lot less on planeswalkers, I found that the dinky 2/1 body was near to irrelevant. Ruinblaster is also a pathetic play against anything fast and left my deck lacking in overall power and ability to close a game.

What I did learn was how much I liked the Jund mana base and, in particular, having access to eight manlands. Birds of Paradise would provide a fast start; I’d drop my hand by turn 4 or 5, and while my opponent was off balance, I’d finish by activating manlands. Even if red didn’t have much to offer, splashing it was better than free because it gave me Lavaclaw Reaches and Raging Ravine!

Abyssal Persecutor

Until now, Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s bounce ability has kept Abyssal Persecutor in check. You can cage a demon, but you can’t keep him for long! It only took a handful of practice games for me to know that I had found my four-drop. Persecutor can’t be killed by Dismember or Doom Blade, and thanks to Tempered Steel, Go for the Throat is all but unplayable. He’s a difficult to answer threat that clocks fast, can’t be chump blocked, and even blocks the flying threats of Caw-Blade and Tempered Steel.

In Round One, my Persecutor faced down Jace Beleren with one loyalty and an untapped Squadron Hawk. I attacked Jace; my opponent blocked and played Dismember before damage. Go for the Throat knocked the Hawk out of the sky; Abyssal Persecutor trampled over it to kill Jace and went back to 6/6 before my opponent untapped for his turn.

After identifying how great Abyssal Persecutor was, the next challenge was to find enough ways to remove him once he’d done his job. Four copies of Go for the Throat was easy, as I was already deciding between it, Doom Blade, and Dismember. Sarkhan the Mad was also a card that I’d been waiting to revive. After all, a world without Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a much happier one for 5/5 Dragon tokens. I tried Momentous Fall, but even one copy made for awkward draws, and I never wanted to see it in my opening hand. Birthing Pod was a valid option also, but my original reason for playing Persecutor was to cut my Birthing Pod package, so I wanted to avoid it if I could.

The final addition to the deck was Mortarpod, and it was the card I was most impressed with over the course of Nationals. If I draw one at any point in the game, I never have to worry about Persecutor’s downfall again. Not only does it get rid of him, but it allows the Demon to kill in three turns instead of four. With Birds of Paradise and Nest Invader, it was easy to burn opponents out or at least to machine-gun down their creatures; plus there was the combo with Acidic Slime’s deathtouch. More than anything though, Mortarpod is simply a good card for this format, and it wouldn’t be too far from playable even if I was to cut Abyssal Persecutor. It kills Squadron Hawk, Grim Lavamancer, green mana creatures, and anything out of Tempered Steel.

In Round Twelve, my opponent started with a Joraga Treespeaker on the draw. I played a Mortarpod, and now he could never level without me killing the Elf in response. Three turns went by, and he didn’t level, instead using his mana on less useful things. Once I no longer cared about the Treespeaker mana, I played Sarkhan the Mad and turned my Germ into a 5/5 Dragon.

Mana Acceleration

Birds of Paradise may be the best card in the deck; it’s certainly the best accelerant available. In fact, Green Sun’s Zenith for Birds is generally better than most of the two-drop options anyway.

Nest Invader is great too because it provides two bodies. After you get your mana, you have a 2/2, which is actually a good attacker since Squadron Hawk can’t trade with it. Aside from the obvious use with Sarkhan the Mad, getting two creatures for the price of one is just insane against aggro. Typically, Birds of Paradise or Lotus Cobra gets burned (Searing Blazed every time, in my case), but Nest Invader doesn’t. If they burn the 2/2, you can still get your mana, and if they burn the token, you have a blocker that trades with Goblin Guide, Ember Hauler, or anything out of Vampires. Speaking of Vampires, Nest Invader sure does make Gatekeeper of Malakir less scary.

Green Sun’s Zenith is one of my favorite Magic cards, and it’s an invaluable addition to midrange green decks. A card that turns into mana when you need it and business when you need it solves the number one problem with ramp strategies, which is inconsistency. In Standard, most green decks should play four copies because the goal is generally to hit four mana on turn 3 anyway, rather than three mana on turn 2 like in other formats.

The omission of Lotus Cobra may seem odd to some, but I feel strongly that it’s the right way to build this deck. The Cobra is a misunderstood card, and it’s a trap for inexperienced deckbuilders. Lotus Cobra was great in pre-banning RUG, but that deck played 27 lands; Preordain, Explore; Oracle of Mul Daya; and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It could hit its land drops every turn and had the late-game card advantage to make it worthwhile to do so. Jund is not able and does not want to continue hitting land drops beyond turn 4 or 5. With the relatively smooth mana curve (thanks Green Sun’s Zenith!) and eight manlands, it’s much better to have the long-term jump in mana of Birds of Paradise than the one-time explosion of Lotus Cobra—Nest Invader is an exception because of the guaranteed value you get out of it. If all that doesn’t convince you, Jund only wants to play four fetchlands! It could maybe play six at the most.

Possible Changes

I’ve hardly scratched the surface of all the different cards I’ve tried or considered for Jund, and there’s certainly room for change and improvement. I was thrilled with the maindeck, although I’d like to find a slot for a Thrun, the Last Troll, perhaps in addition to the one that’s already on the sideboard. I was impressed with how good he was against Caw-Blade, as they have to be careful not to tap out for fear of Sarkhan the Mad and Abyssal Persecutor. If they leave mana up and you play Thrun, their turn is wasted, which is especially bad since their main way of beating Thrun is to race.

While Jund’s threats are difficult for Caw-Blade to answer, they’re not impossible. Therefore the matchup is about coming out fast, keeping them on the back foot, and letting the chip damage add up. Nest Invader is great for that, as is Thrun and Acidic Slime. I’d like to capitalize on that advantage by changing the Arc Trails and Creeping Corrosions in the sideboard to more Lightning Bolts, especially since Tempered Steel didn’t show up in the numbers that I expected. One or two copies of a Sword might be worthwhile also. I’m not totally sure which one would be best, but I have trouble seeing Caw-Blade beating Thrun equipped with Sword of War and Peace.

I know that card-by-card evaluations can get dull, so maybe I need to share my excitement by letting my tournament experience stand for itself.

Nationals Highlight

Sarkhan the Mad was down to three loyalty because he’d already successfully made two Dragons. Unfortunately, Jon, my Eldrazi Green opponent, was in full gear after untapping with an Eye of Ugin which would undoubtedly find him Emrakul, the Aeons Torn for his next turn. He attacked with his Primeval Titan, and as he picked up his deck, I said “attacking me?” Jon paused, considered, and said “no, I’m attacking Sarkhan.” Despite my abundance of blockers, I put him in the graveyard and patiently waited until my turn, when I played a fresh Sarkhan the Mad from my hand, nuked Jon for ten damage, and attacked for the rest!