It’s Not Easy Being Green

Does green have what it takes to compete in a Lifebane Zombie filled world? Find out before SCG Standard Open: Milwaukee this weekend from two-time Pro Tour winner Brian Kibler!

"Did you even consider playing a nongreen deck in this tournament?"

"Not really . . . but now that you mention it, I haven’t really won much since Lifebane Zombie was printed."

There have been better times in history to play a green deck. Two of the most popular strategies in Standard play maindeck green color hosers, and another has Supreme Verdict alongside a bunch of removal. Green decks have been conspicuously underrepresented in the Top 8 of recent tournaments, with the color completely shut out at Grand Prix Beijing and putting only a single representative in the elimination rounds of Grand Prix Cincinnati.

If you look around, you might get the impression that green creatures are going extinct. The power and prevalence of both Lifebane Zombie and Tidebinder Mage are part of the equation, but a bigger factor is the quality and quantity of removal spells being played.

Hero’s Downfall, Doom Blade, Ultimate Price, Azorius Charm, Detention Sphere, even Rapid Hybridization—these are all extremely efficient ways to destroy even the biggest of creatures. I had some hope that the printing of Bile Blight would move the removal packages that show up in black decks away from things that could actually consistently kill the creatures I wanted to play, but the reality has been that it’s shown up as maybe a one- or two-of in the best black decks, with Devour Flesh, Ultimate Price, and Hero’s Downfall still making up a bulk of the removal. Even worse, the popularity of green decks despite their meager success along with a rise in the stock of Blood Baron of Vizkopa and Obzedat, Ghost Council has led to many black decks abandoning Nightveil Specter entirely to play Lifebane Zombie in the maindeck.

The duo of Lifebane Zombie and Doom Blade along with guest star Ultimate Price put green decks in something of a squeeze. If you try to play cheap creatures to make the removal spells inefficient, their bodies are going to be such that Lifebane Zombie can block and kill them. If you play creatures that are big enough to actually survive a fight with Lifebane Zombie, your opponent can use cheap removal to kill things that cost your entire turn to cast.

This is a big part of why I abandoned the G/B Aggro deck that I was playing early on last season–well, that and the fact that trying to get the mana to cast both Boon Satyr and Hero’s Downfall on time in an aggressive deck is an absolute train wreck. But even when the mana did work out, I would frequently get completely wrecked by a Lifebane Zombie that would take one of my creatures from my hand and then block another, which is absolutely disastrous for a deck that’s trying to win through tempo.

I have found that the key is presenting threats that their removal is not well equipped to handle and punishing them for their failure to deal with them quickly. The biggest upgrade from G/B to G/R is in the quality of the noncreature threats available. While Underworld Connections is a fine card and can generate a big advantage over the course of a game, your opponent can just let it sit in play for a number of turns unmolested and still win the game.

I’ve tried all kinds of variations on G/R decks, from straight G/R to Jund to Naya.

Naya never really impressed me. The big draws were Chained to the Rocks, Advent of the Wurm, and Assemble the Legion. Chained to the Rocks was powerful but pretty inconsistent since it requires you to not only draw one of your white sources but also an actual Mountain to enchant, which means it has multiple ways by which it can be unplayable. Advent was nice in avoiding Lifebane Zombie but still died to Doom Blade and Ultimate Price and was competing with Polukranos, World Eater and Ghor-Clan Rampager for space. On top of that it made Domri marginally worse, and weakening one of my best cards for something that’s not even a clear upgrade felt rather silly.

Both Advent of the Wurm and Chained to the Rocks also make Scavenging Ooze worse, which while not as central as Domri is one of the unsung heroes of green creature decks these days. The strongest and most irreplaceable of the effects came from Assemble the Legion, which while powerful takes a lot of time to get online and only really has applications in one matchup.

Here’s what my latest Naya deck looked like:

I wouldn’t recommend this version, but it can’t hurt to share the idea, eh?

I wrote about Jund last week, and my feelings on the specific card choices haven’t changed a ton, although the more I played it the less confident I felt in the mana base, both in terms of its consistency and the amount of damage it was dealing to me. The success of control decks a few weeks back heralded the return of aggressive red and burn decks, both of which can punish you for a single misstep with a land that enters the battlefield tapped or for taking two too many damage from your Ravnica duals.

In order to try to cut down on these missteps, at least in terms of colored mana issues, I started trimming a lot of the off-color spells from my deck. I’ve cooled a bit on Reaper of the Wilds lately. I still think the card is strong, especially against black decks where it dodges both Ultimate Price and Doom Blade, but as a splash card it takes away one of the core strengths of Monsters, which is the ability to consistently accelerate into significant threats. I hate having to mulligan a hand of Forest, Stomping Ground, Elvish Mystic, Reaper of the Wilds, and random other cards because I only have ten black lands, only eight of which I can actually use to cast the Reaper if I draw them turn 3 since two of them enter the battlefield tapped.

That was another thing that started to bother me more as I played the deck. Playing a bunch of lands that enter the battlefield tapped greatly weakens the deck’s ability to ramp into threats. In a deck with six lands that enter the battlefield tapped, you’re frequently unable to actually use a turn 1 Elvish Mystic to cast a three-drop on turn 2 and especially unlikely to be able to follow that up with a four-drop on turn 3.

So much of the strength of decks like these comes from their ability to gain an edge with mana acceleration. It seems almost absurd to devote eight slots in a deck to ramp effects and then play so many lands that enter the battlefield tapped that you’re frequently unable to use those cards to accelerate you. If I’m going to play with Elvish Mystic, I want it to feel like one of the best cards in my deck.

Here’s the last version I was playing before I abandoned it:

With my desire to maximize the power of my mana creatures, I went Back to Basics—basic Forests and Mountains that is—with straight G/R. I had already cut so many of the splash cards that it seemed like I might as well try to build the deck to be as streamlined and consistent as possible.

When it comes down to it, the goal of either the black or the white splash is to provide answers to opposing threats. But that’s really not what this kind of deck is best at anyway. This kind of deck wants to be the one asking the questions. You want to play mana accelerators into some kind of giant monster that your opponent can’t possibly stop.

And that’s how I ended up falling in love with this guy:

I’d tried Xenagos, God of Revels before in different builds of G/R, but he never quite clicked for me. But when I started playing with him again, however, I realized that he was just what I was looking for: a powerful threat that is not susceptible to most removal. Sure, your opponent can Thoughtseize it or take it with Lifebane Zombie sadly, but once it hits the table it’s pretty much not going anywhere unless the principal sends him to detention.

What Xenagos does is make all of your threats matter—and matter a lot. When he’s in play, your opponent can instantly die at almost any point if they tap out. One of the toughest cards for straight G/R to beat in the current Standard format is Desecration Demon because it naturally outclasses all of your creatures. With Xenagos, all of your heavy hitters can beat a Demon in combat.

Xenagos is at his absolute best in midrange matchups where the board can get cluttered, like against other green decks. You can win virtually any race by sending in huge haste creatures turn after turn—to say nothing of attacking with Xenagos himself, which certainly comes up in games where removal isn’t being thrown everywhere.

I’ve long advocated for "kill your opponent" as the universal answer to "but how do you beat [insert card/deck here]?" and Xenagos is topnotch in that category. You lose access to some of the fancier cards like Rakdos’s Return and Sire of Insanity, but I’ve lost more games with those in my hand against control decks than I can count. I don’t want to get fancy. I want them dead.

Here’s one of my recent lists:

Thirteen basic lands and two copies of Mutavault—so many lands that painlessly come into play untapped! I’ve played against burn and other aggressive red decks quite a bit with this list lately, and I’ve absolutely loved the mana base. It’s possible I want the third Mutavault in the maindeck over perhaps the fourth Polukranos, World Eater, but most of the time I’m quite happy with 23 lands and eight mana creatures.

Most of the cards in the maindeck need no explanation I imagine—most of the interesting stuff is in the sideboard. I’m not sure if Destructive Revelry or Unravel the Aether is the correct enchantment destruction effect to play. Revelry can sometimes kill a planeswalker against U/W and Esper Control, but Unravel is much better against the U/W Devotion decks that have multiple Gods alongside Detention Sphere.

I was playing Ruric Thar, the Unbowed for a long time–I actually had one in my maindeck and one in my sideboard for a while, and let me tell you how fun that guy is to cast and give haste to with Xenagos—but ultimately I cut him because I wanted to cut down my curve. That said, Ruric Thar isn’t just powerful against control, but he’s also hilariously good against burn decks, which basically can’t kill without killing themselves while he’s in play.

Instead, I maxed out on Mistcutter Hydra, which is very important against Mono-Blue Devotion to punch past Master of Waves since you can only really kill it with Polukranos, World Eater. Gruul Charm is also pretty great against Mono-Blue. Sometimes you can sweep up multiple fliers, sometimes you can steal back something they’ve taken with Domestication, and sometimes you can make all of their Elemental tokens unable to block when you alpha strike them—it’s surprisingly awesome in the matchup. Shock is quite good too against Mono-Blue as well as any other small creature deck, giving you super cheap interaction that can take out everything from Tidebinder Mage and Cloudfin Raptor to Banisher Priest and Precinct Captain.

Hammer of Purphoros and Chandra are there both for control decks and Mono-Black Devotion. I’m not totally sold on Hammer yet, but it can help in a ton in games in which you flood out and can also enable hasty Polukranos, World Eater, Ghor-Clan Rampager, or even Xenagos, God of Revels. The haste is less relevant against control decks since you have so many hasty creatures between Mistcutter Hydra and Stormbreath Dragon, so it’s possible it should be on the chopping block. It’s still a holdover from when Ruric Thar, the Unbowed was around, and as we’ve discussed, hasty Ruric Thars are super sweet.

Another card I’m considering right now is Fanatic of Xenagos. It doesn’t really mesh with the maindeck plan of just trying to ramp into big things, but I think it might have a place in sideboarded games in which you’re fighting against cheap removal and going big isn’t as attractive. I’ve actually found that I sideboard out Stormbreath Dragon more than almost any other card because it’s pretty mediocre against the aggressive decks as well as against Mono-Black Devotion. I’ve considered the possibility that Fanatic could give me a way to lower my curve in both of those matchups—in one case mostly to block and in the other to apply pressure earlier—but I’m not quite sure.

What do you think? Does green have what it takes to compete in a Lifebane Zombie filled world? And what’s the best way to do it?