R/G Aggro in Standard – Why Jacob Van Lunen is the Man, And Everyone Should Know It

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Wednesday, June 4th – Magic Legend Zvi Mowshowitz brings us the deck that he believes is the current Best Deck in Standard. Designed by Pro Tour winner Jacob Van Lunen, the deck posted fantastic results in Hollywood across the board. This exceptional article reveals the genesis of the deck, and presents us with comprehensive strategic advice and sideboard plans, all in perfect time for Regionals this coming weekend…

Jacob Van Lunen is the man, and everyone should know it.

Why is that, you ask? I’m glad you did. He is the man for more than his winning good looks, charming personality, and dedication to slugging through all the endless mirror matchup playtesting sessions while I’m out on the couch playing Rock Band or off on the beach sipping pina coladas. The real reason he is the man is that he built me and the rest of our team an awesome deck for Pro Tour: Hollywood, in a format where I was at a complete loss. He figured out how to beat the Faerie deck and built what I am confident is the best deck out there that does so. The only other candidate for the best choice right now to me is Reveillark, which both can’t beat Faeries and is impossible to spell.

On the way to demonstrating that, I roared back from the brink of elimination to help the deck put four of its five players into Day 2 and post a match win percentage above 60%.

So remember, when I tell you about this deck, this is his story.

Here is the deck:

Jacob can and hopefully will give a more detailed version of how the deck came to be when he returns from his deck construction victory tour, but until then my perspective will have to do. We were clearly at a loss. Rather than feeling like a Pro Tour, Hollywood was feeling like a PTQ. The good decks had been mapped out, and while there would be a few innovations and card improvements, the ground had already been mapped out. Faeries was the best deck, and there was no way to beat it with a deck that didn’t make me want to vomit (yes, Red decks, this means you!) leaving me with little choice but to become Part of the Problem┢ if we couldn’t come up with something else and quickly. The combolicious version of Elves was the last shot I took, thanks to a build from Alan Comer and one from Jacob and Chris, but it was clearly coming up short.

Then Jacob figured out what it took to deal with the Faerie menace, and proposed an early prototype of this gem. The original version didn’t have Firespout, it had less than four Thickets, and it had a Boreal Druid. I quickly fixed the Thicket issue by pointing out it was far better than Mountain. I also questioned the Boreal Druid right away. Originally the thought was that the deck had to come out blisteringly fast, but it became clear that not having a one-drop was no cause for panic, especially if your hand had some burn in it, and the fact that Deus was your best card to accelerate into doomed the Druid.

The Druid issue and my objection to Firespout both came from my long experience with other similar Red/Green decks, as can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The key innovation in Chevy Fires was that it didn’t waste slots that could be devoted to either more mana or more fat. It was a trip to Fogo de Chao. There would be no wasted slots and an endless stream of meat. You had your Chimeric Idols, Blastoderms, your Jade Leeches, your Saproling Bursts, your Two-Headed Dragons, and in your burn slots you either had Assault and Battery for Elephants or an Earthquake for a fat burn spell. Aside from Fires of Yavimaya, which made fat into attacking and therefore more fat, all you had was mana, and Rishadan Port and Dust Bowl along with enemy copies of Port justified playing enough mana to always have enough.

This build struck me as having too much mana in it, because the comparison is stark. Chevy Fires started its creature curve at three mana, since we didn’t have space for no little cute feathered River Boas, used multiple fours and peaked at six with the second head free while its mana doubled as land destruction and absorbed it in return. For that it had 25 lands, four Birds and four Elves. Here we were two mana sources short and had two manlands, but that was not about to make up for dropping the curve by an entire mana and taking an average of six Ports and two Dust Bowls off the table. Meanwhile, we’d supplemented our Elf count with the non-union third world equivalent and had seven burn spells that had neither an X nor a damn dirty Elephant available. Meanwhile Magus would sometimes be game but other times be nothing but a dork. We were going to choke! Since we couldn’t play less lands or cut more than one mana creature without breaking up the band, I thought that we would need to make less of an effort to burn ‘em and see if we could do more to earn ‘em instead. I suggested we might try maindecking Cloudthresher.

What turned out to be fascinating about this line of thinking is that it was at the same time both completely right and completely wrong. Having the option to go large after sideboarding was important, but in general it was simply unnecessary. What I had forgotten was that our opposition had changed radically as well. The game was faster and the men were smaller. One of the main reasons (other than “because we could”) that the deck played such a heavy curve was that there were people out there that would overpower you if you didn’t, or trade off counters or removal with your big spells then deal with the scraps later. Those are no longer issues against most of the field, and tempo is king thanks to the way the cards play out.

Your matchups other than Faeries, which is unique enough to be considered separately, fall into three categories:

Category 1 are decks that are smaller than you. This category includes Merfolk, Red (would everyone please stop saying it wins? The commonwealth thanks you.), and most other Red/Green decks. There are also a number of Rogue decks that fall into this category. Against these decks, you have the classic battle of Birds, Elves, and big men against a blitz where women, children, and cowards attack. Here your goal is not to win but to simply not lose; you can be on the attack from turn 1, especially going first, but your inevitability is by far the most important aspect of the situation. All you have to do is play your cards and you’ll win. The burn decks require you to get guys out quickly so you don’t get into burn range, and you need to make sure to kill Crusher, which is how we ended up with four Lash Out and only three Tarfire. The swarm of a Merfolk deck acts an awful lot like burn, so you need to take the same approach and guard your life total while taking out his Lords and Sowers with the burn. After sideboarding you take out Magus of the Moon (unless they happen to be vulnerable) and lower the curve a little in order to get Kitchen Finks, Firespout, and the Sulfurous Blast.

These matchups are very hard to lose. Play solid defensive Magic.

Category 2 are decks that are bigger than you. This, as all midrange players know, is Not Good. There are three major players here, Reveillark, Mana Ramp, and Quick n’ Toast. The big mistake most players in such matchups make is that they try to win legitimately. This is wishful thinking. It is vital to know when the pairings have handed you a lemon, and not to try to use your obviously superior play skill to crush your opponent in honorable combat. It will not work. Repeat after me. It. Will. Not. Work. Instead, you want to grab what chance you have to try and steal the match out from under him by getting lucky. For Reveillark, especially versions with a third color, this means hoping that Magus will mess up his mana or that his draw will otherwise not function properly. Note that the winning model does not have a full set of Wrath of God, which is the card you most fear because you won’t have time to recover and he has the late game. Between Magus victories and no-Wrath swarm victories you have a reasonable chance to steal the game, and you don’t want to blow that by being cute. I’d bring in Primal Command at this point because of the likelihood of facing Teferi’s Moat, but I feel that I was correct not to bring it in on Day 2 of the Pro Tour. I have not tested against Big Mana, but here your game plan again more or less has to be to kill him quickly. You can have very fast starts and men that are larger than they look, both of which can beat him, so hope for the best. After sideboarding you improve by taking out bad burn spells and Magus (depending on version) for threats, while he can’t make his deck that much better than it already is. Note that Skred is much smaller than true Mana Ramp, and is closer to a category 3 fair fight.

These matchups are very hard to win. Play aggressive Magic and take risks.

The third category are the fair fights: Doran, B/G Elves, and potentially mirror matchups. These battles are a mixture of tempo and power fights. Chameleon Colossus makes it hard to play defense properly in these matchups, as few people have a good answer to it and it is all but impossible to block it efficiently. The mirror isn’t something we tested, but it’s likely all about coming out fast and bringing the big guns. Against Elves you need to be more subtle. Your creatures are bigger overall and your Firespouts can devastate them, but their removal and the threat of Profane Command are serious problems. They have a lot of Banishings, and if they can get to the point where Profane Command is at full power then you’re in deep trouble. Chameleon Colossus is by far your best weapon against them, but they don’t have as many removal spells as you have big men. Your plan here is to use Firespout to clear up the small men and try to win with large ones, turning your curve after board into one akin to the old Fires decks to try and go over the top, but still leaving you the threat of overrunning them quickly if you get the right draw.

These matchups are classic Magic. Play tight!

Then there’s Faeries, which is very good for you if you’re fully aware of what his deck can do and press the advantage to avoid them stealing games with Cryptic Command or other tricks.

Where I had the most impact on the deck was the sideboard. I realized that we had Primal Command but often would cast it without a good target; if you cast it for five mana, wouldn’t you want a six-drop? Cloudthresher was one good response, and seemed like both good flexibility during sideboarding and a way to keep opponents guessing late into the tournament, but a real potential threat was Green decks that would stall the ground (or the token deck, potentially) and that could hold off a Colossus or Cloudthresher all day. We needed a creature with evasion, and while my first choice (Two-Headed Dragon, which would have been so beautiful) was not available, we did find Shivan Dragon. Nothing brings a smile to your face like Shivan Dragon, and everyone on the team killed at least one opponent with good old Shivan. For the last two slots I gave us Loxodon Warhammer to deal with Elves and other similar situations. These matchups come down to who can get there with most power, and Warhammer on Colossus is quite the trump card. Even putting it on Birds of Paradise is a six point life swing per turn, and it’s hard to beat that given the ground stalls these matchups usually end up with. It can also be very strong on giant Crushers or on Deus, which while it already has trample will suddenly kill a land even if it is blocked. It’s not something you would want to focus on, but it is a welcome addition to your arsenal.

The one debate we had with the deck was fourth Tarfire versus fourth Deus. I felt strongly that we needed the power that comes from the Deus, and I still feel that it is a very strong card for you, but I suspect that you can have a slightly stronger 75 if you sacrifice one Deus. The reason for this is that there is one card missing from the list we played. That card is Flame Javelin.

While we had four Lash Out to deal with Crusher, Colossus turned out to be a big deal. Javelin is one of the few good ways to remove a Colossus. The problem with Javelin is that it is not what you want overall. Playing it game 1 is awkward at best, even with its ability to take out Colossus and Mistbind Clique and go to the face. It’s highly castable, and will usually go off for four mana or less, but it doesn’t give you the tempo you need when facing off against Faeries or swarm decks like Merfolk or Red. You want efficient answers you can use while playing men. However, Colossus is key to facing down the Elves, as is being able to take down Garruk when you need to, and Javelin does both jobs. Is there a way to get it into the deck or sideboard and still keep everything else you want?

I think the only realistic way to do that is to either sacrifice Warhammer or take one Deus out of the maindeck, turning it into the third Firespout. That frees up a sideboard slot, and you can use that slot and the second Warhammer (since they go in under similar conditions) to get two copies of Flame Javelin into your sideboard. A wild card would be to cut a Lash Out in the same fashion, since the third Firespout would take its place. It would also be good if a way to improve the matchup against Reveillark could be found that didn’t cost too much, but that seems difficult.

The following sideboard plans assume the original configuration, but note where the adjustment would be non-obvious for Javelin.

Sideboarding Plans:

While this is not a complete list, they are the major opponents and the rest should be clear.

-2 Firespout, -1 Lash Out
+2 Squall Line, +1 Cloudthresher

While Firespout certainly isn’t bad, it is Sorcery speed and you want the instant removal to deal with tricky situations and threaten Mystic Clique in particular while you need to preserve as many threats as possible. You could benefit from a fourth such effect, but you would get marginal gains at most from more than that. In general, remember to concentrate on tempo and to guard against walking into Cryptic Command.

-4 Magus of the Moon, -3 Deus of Calamity
+4 Kitchen Finks, +2 Firespout, +1 Sulfurous Blast

Exactly how you board depends on their exact listing, since they will sideboard radically differently sometimes. This is the defensive, make sure you survive plan which will work well against traditional sideboarding. There are some models that bring in Teferi’s Moat or rely on a lot of white or both. In those cases, you can run the deck essentially unsideboarded, and if you know they’re going long then you can bring in Warhammer (if you have it) to use on Crusher against Forge-Tender and on Birds to get around Moat. The sideboarding plan shown here assumes they are going to play their original game and try to kill you quickly rather than play a long game, so you’re playing to not die. If they’re not going all out, you’re not under threat and Finks is unnecessary. Magus will sometimes die in a Firespout but he shuts down the river guide while doing so and otherwise can cripple them so that’s fine; remember that Firespout saved for later is still very good for you.

Black/Green Elves
-2 Llanowar Elves, -4 Magus of the Moon
+2 Loxodon Warhammer, +2 Firespout, +1 Sulfurous Blast, +1 Shivan Dragon

If you have Javelin you would put it in, sacrificing whatever wasn’t available to you in your 75 to get it. The only real question here is Primal Command, since it can go get Shivan while slowing them down by a land, but I don’t think you have the kind of tempo for that when Shivan dies so often. It’s worth bringing in but not anything to write home about. You still have six mana creatures, so you’ll have one a lot, but don’t worry if you don’t. There’s a lot of time before they get so much mana that Profane Command threatens to overwhelm you, and you have a lot of ways to win before that happens especially if they can’t protect a Colossus anymore.

-2 Firespout, -4 Lash Out
+2 Loxodon Warhammer, +2 Primal Command, +1 Cloudthresher, +1 Shivan Dragon

Unlike the Elves, Doran doesn’t lend itself to being taken out by Firespout so you’ll have to find another way. Doran’s mana is pretty much all or nothing, with nothing being an option thanks to them not running any basic lands and you having burn. The burn doesn’t have much to hit except Birds and Elves but that’s important enough to leave Tarfire in for certain. The question is Lash Out, since there isn’t anything else to hit, with Colossus and Doran being too big. If you start trading two-for-one against Doran you’re going to lose to Profane Command, so I would rather get fat myself and Primal Command to find Colossus if I don’t want to risk a Shriekmaw or Pact, or a Cloudthresher or Shivan (or Magus!) if I don’t mind. He has about seven big men and three Commands, plus two Primals after sideboarding. You have more large men than that, and Magus as a must-kill most of the time, but he has more Black removal than you have copies of Magus. I haven’t actually tested this, so this plan might be wrong. Use Javelin if you have it, as it takes out Colossus and you can sacrifice an Elf or Bird for a good cause against Doran.

-3 Tarfire, -4 Lash Out
+1 Cloudthresher, +2 Squall Line, +1 Shivan Dragon, +2 Primal Command, +1 Firespout

This presumes you’re up against the three-color version, and you face Teferi’s Moat and Wrath of God in equal measure. With Sower of Temptation as a must-kill and Avens, Mulldrifters, and Reveillarks in the air, Firespout is surprisingly strong as you can miss the ground if you want to and will often clear a path. This plan gives you options and plenty of fat, while keeping Magus in play even against versions with high Plains counts. Against versions that run more Wrath of God and skimp on Teferi’s Moat, or otherwise shift the burden to protecting against mass removal, Kitchen Finks is strong as it lets you get a quick offense on the board to force Wrath and recover once they play it.

Mana Ramp and Quicken Toast
-3 Tarfire, -4 Lash Out, -2 Firespout
+2 Loxodon Warhammer, +1 Primal Command, +1 Shivan Dragon, +1 Cloudthresher, +4 Kitchen Finks

This isn’t pretty, but you’re not trying to be pretty. Finks is obviously suboptimal, but he lets you swam quickly into mass removal and has three power, where your removal spells would do little or nothing beyond finishing off Wall of Roots so they have to come out. This gives you a lot of threats and hopefully they can carry the day. If they have a version such that Magus doesn’t do anything, you can leave in some copies of Tarfire to at least get Tarmogoyf going quickly and hope for the best. There wasn’t much your sideboard could have done for you anyway. Against Quick n’ Toast you need the second Command for Teferi’s Moat, so you give up a Finks.

-3 Deus of Calamity, -4 Magus of the Moon
+4 Kitchen Finks, +2 Primal Command, +1 Firespout

Deus simply isn’t necessary here, because they have no chance in a long game. All you care about is survival, which is what the life gain package is for. The fourth Firespout is certainly an option over the last Deus, but I want one copy to stay for Primal Command.

Because this deck existed for less than a week before the Pro Tour, and I didn’t get a chance to playtest with it before the tournament, a lot of this is speculative, but what isn’t speculative is the success of the deck. We had a lot of disadvantages. The players who played the deck included only one player with proven results in Constructed. At most, two of us had any serious experience working with the deck, and most of the matchups had to get by on speculation. Despite that, we posted what I consider exceptional results. It’s the rare deck that can post a 60% win percentage, or an 80% conversion rate to Day 2. The reason those numbers aren’t clear when people look at the statistics is that they’ve lumped us in with other R/G decks that are doing something quite different, forsaking the Birds and Elves for attacking with one- and two-drops and backing them up with burn. On the flip side of that, we didn’t put anyone into the Top 8. While the metagame at the very top of the Swiss was somewhat hostile to us compared to the general field, such effects are not as big as people make them out to be. We simply split our wins too evenly and ended up without much cash or glory. Despite that, I think that in a tournament such as Regionals that R/G is an excellent choice, and that is doubly true due to the lack of interest in the deck.

Good luck at Regionals, whatever you choose to play.