Peebles Primers – Green/Black Damnation Control in Standard

The Star City $5,000 Standard Open comes to Charlotte, NC!
Wednesday, February 20th – While the story of Pro Tour: Kuala Lumpur rightfully revolves around Jonny Magic, there was more than mere drafting going on in the tournament venue. Today’s Peebles Primers takes a look at an interesting Standard deck that made Top 8 at the $2000 Amateur Challenge. Green and Black have been popular for quite some time… but does this customizable deck have the power to make a mark on the metagame?

The big story of the past weekend was, for most people, Jon Finkel win in Kuala Lumpur. While I enjoy reading the Pro Tour coverage as much as the next guy, often I find myself more interested in the coverage of certain side events than in the main event. For Kuala Lumpur, this side event was the $2000 Amateur Challenge, because it would give me still more information to use in my preparation for the upcoming Star City Games $5000 Standard Open. I guess “coverage” isn’t the right word to use, since the only extra information given (beyond the Top 8 decklists) is the archetype breakdown for decks played in the tournament. However, even this little bit of information is quite telling.

The only decks that put up double-digit numbers were Warrior-Elves and Kithkin. With 28 spots out of a total 92 players, you might think that you’d see at least one or two of these decks in the Top 8, but you’d be wrong. Despite their massive popularity, these decks appear to be unable to actually seal the deal, likely due to susceptibility to cards like Teferi’s Moat or Magus of the Moat. On the other end of the spectrum, Faerie decks took up only eight of the tournament slots, but two pilots met each other in the finals, so it would seem as though some sort of Faerie deck is certainly worth taking a look at if you’re serious about winning some Standard tournaments.

Still, Elves, Kithkin, and Faeries are all somewhat old news. Sure, the Faerie decks picked up Bitterblossom and (sometimes) Notorious Throng, but they’ve been popular since Worlds and Zvi’s subsequent article series. Elves and Kithkin are “new” as of Morningtide, but they’ve been covered before on this website. The thing that I found myself most interested in was the deck of fourth-place finisher Sam Shi Xian. Categorized as “Black-Green Damnation Control,” this deck looks much more like a Lorwyn Block Constructed deck than a Standard deck. I say this because it is very clearly built around Primal Command, a card that hasn’t made much noise outside of Block Constructed.

Decks like this one must be part of the reason that Elves and Kithkin found themselves on the sidelines come Top 8. Beating a deck like this can be difficult because its creatures and its spells are both hateful to small creature decks that operate on the ground. Wall of Roots and Tarmogoyf provide cheap men that can block extremely well, while bullet creatures like Masked Admirers can work overtime against the ground-pounders. Beyond just good defensive creatures that can eventually turn the game around and swing for the win, this deck features eight ways to cast Damnation on the third turn against the fastest of assaults (though clearly you’d rather make that play off of a Mind Stone than a Wall of Roots), and makes sure that it can clean up stragglers with Nameless Inversion and Sudden Death. In addition to these sleeker spells, both Commands do a very good job against aggressive strategies, either killing a threat and returning a blocker or tutoring up a Cloudthresher and gaining seven life along the way.

Of course, it seems as though the Faerie tribe is the aggro deck to worry about. You can tell that Xian knew that this might be the case, as his sideboard is packing the other three Cloudthreshers that are so powerful against the Faerie army. It would be irresponsible of me to say that this completely wins the matchup, though; the two finalists each had four Rune Snags and four Spellstutter Sprites, and the winner had Cryptic Commands and sideboard Flashfreezes to make sure that it was safe from the Thresher. However, it’s not as though Xian was relying only on his Cloudthreshers to win this matchup; Damnation is still going to be amazing if it resolves, and the spot removal can buy time. In the case of Sudden Death, it even means that you don’t need to worry about Scion of Oona. Besides, the big threats that the Green/Black deck can pump out can simply race past the small flying men before they get a chance to truly come online.

However, I would not want to find myself playing this deck in a sea of Counterspell control decks. It seems, though, that this isn’t something that you need to worry about in the current Standard format; of the 92 players, only two people brought an old-fashioned Blue/White control deck. You might run into a Rune Snag or Cryptic Command out of Faeries or Mannequin, but you won’t run into an impenetrable wall of countermagic these days. Even if you did, this deck has tools to give itself a fighting chance. Efficient threats like Tarmogoyf always help, but I’m referring mostly to the disruption elements that the deck plays in Thoughtseize and Primal Command. Thoughtseize is obvious, but people who haven’t played against fast Primal Commands before might not realize how hard it can be to stabilize against someone that casts a fourth-turn Fallow Earth that happens to find exactly the guy that you don’t want to see.

The flavor of control deck that you’re more likely to run into is going to feel like something resembling a mirror match. It’s hard to really call it a mirror-match because the other guy might well have Doran, Chameleon Colossus, or Garruk, but the idea is that the gameplan for your deck and theirs is going to be relatively similar. This deck doesn’t worry too much about Tarmogoyfs or Dorans, because it has plenty of its own fatties to keep up with the other guy’s, but it can be troubled by Chameleon Colossus. With Protection from Black and the doubling ability, it’s likely going to take a two- or three-for-one to take it down in combat, or a Damnation to kill it outside of the red zone. However, Primal Command is similarly potent in the near-mirror; as always it tutors up exactly what you need, but the other modes can be quite useful too. For instance, if you’re staring down a Garruk that you can’t just swing at, you can Command it to the top and then shuffle their graveyard back into the deck, which might also affect their Profane Commands or Tarmogoyfs. However, I’d expect that the most common modes to choose will involve tutoring up Tombstalker to smack them until they die.

At this point, the problem lies in the Black/Green deck’s matchup with Combo decks. An accelerated Primal Command can bounce a Spinerock Knoll and gain seven life to help fend off a Dragonstorm opponent, but there’s not a whole lot it does against Reveillark decks. Primal Command might be able to catch someone off-guard, but the fact that it can only do so at sorcery speed means that they’re not in danger of losing their graveyard mid-combo. Thoughtseize can grab missing pieces out of the hand, but with only three discard spells in the maindeck, the Reveillark deck can easily recoup the lost cards with Mulldrifters or filter to the missing piece with Bonded Fetch. Of course, Xian tried to address this problem with Extirpates out of the board, and there’s a pretty good chance that new pilots of the Reveillark deck were caught by that card. Unfortunately, one of the Faerie decks in the finals also sideboarded Extirpates, so people will be more aware of the card’s existence in the future.

The fact that the deck is built to utilize Primal Command means that very small changes to its creature base can change entire matchups dramatically. For instance, I received an instant message from a friend and teammate asking what I would cut to fit in a Withered Wretch. The idea behind this change is that it gives the deck a bullet that can keep the opponent’s graveyard under control at all times (and the tutor for the Wretch will even make sure that the graveyard isn’t too full to contain). I think that one of the biggest strengths of this deck is that it can be customized to beat whatever you think might be coming your way in a given tournament. If I were to play this at, say, Star City’s 5k Standard event, I would look for a second bullet against Faeries (beyond Cloudthresher). Unfortunately for me, the best that a quick Gatherer search gave me were Scryb Ranger and Festercreep, and those fall prey to Flashfreeze and Spellstutter Sprite.

In the end, this is more than simply another take on the Standard Rock decks we’ve been seeing ever since the World Championships last year. It plays the same class of game, yes, but it does it in a very different way due to the utility of the Green Command. I would not be surprised to see an evolution of this deck pop up more and more frequently as the format plays out.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM