Reflections On Ramp And The Last Burst For Kuldotha Phoenix

Read about the Standard deck that renowned rogue brewer Adrian Sullivan has been playing a lot lately and feels is a reasonable choice for SCG Open Series: Atlanta featuring the Invitational this weekend.

Sometimes, there comes a deck that’s good, even really good, but that you can’t play in good conscience. Usually the problem is simple: there’s another deck that is popular that just KOs it.

For a lot of decks, this was absolutely the case because of one amazing, aggravating, overly fantastic card: Primeval Titan.

It wasn’t that long ago that Primeval Titan was the king of Standard. You still see him from time to time these days, but not nearly as much as you used to. There were three decks in the Top 16 of the SCG Standard Open in Los Angeles sporting four Primeval Titan. Two were Wolf Run Blue, and one was the more traditional Wolf Run Ramp (another way of saying “Red” really).

The problem with Primeval Titan for a ton of decks is simple: if you’re trying to play something that is truly midrange, you are pretty much outclassed by Primeval Titan all by itself the moment it hits play.

That’s a big problem. Losing to one card is bad enough, but when it’s one card that a player isn’t playing in any way to mess with you, that’s worse. And if it’s one card that a player has plenty of incentives to choose to play, it’s even worse yet.

For the fledgling midrange player, Primeval Titan has been a nightmare because the exact function of the card pulls you way ahead of an opponent trying to do similar things. The easiest way to see this illustrated is to actually just watch a ramp mirror match and see what happens to the person who plays Primeval Titan versus the person that doesn’t. With the exception of the Titan trump (Frost Titan), it is overwhelmingly in favor of the Primeval Titan player because of the ancillary benefits that the card brings. While an Inferno Titan can represent a huge threat or even clear up a few of the small creatures that might be lying around, Primeval Titan causes a set of problems on the board. Even if you kill the Primeval Titan, the cards it leaves behind could just kill you.

Furthermore, the thinning of the deck with Primeval Titan doesn’t just make it all the more likely you’ll find another Primeval or a Green Sun’s Zenith to get one, but it also means that all of the other cards in your deck are more effectively utilized, whether it be an X-spell or simply dropping a land in play and having nine mana to go “Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells”—a pretty frightening proposition, particularly if a Kessig Wolf Run is in play. But finally and most importantly, even if you negated all of the board of threats somehow, typically all it would take is the topdeck of a single land to finish off the Inkmoth-Kessig pair and you’d be dead on the following turn (and if not that time then the next time).

An opposing midrange deck wants to fight on the basis of board dominance, and Primeval Titan just makes that incredibly hard. Simply by resolving the damage is done.

In a different time, in a different moment, ramp decks were built to utterly revolve around Primeval Titan—that meant that there might be access to four Inkmoth Nexus and sometimes more than the two Kessig Wolf Run that are now common in ramp variants. But metagames shift, and so too does what we’re required to do to respond to them. The Inkmoth kill, though seemingly inevitable, was also something that was fairly slow, and as the aggressive decks like Zombies and G/R Aggro started to become more common, ramp, even ramp that was helped out by Huntmaster and eventually Thragtusk, had to shift as well.

Most of the Delver lists had changed too, with four Geist of Saint Traft becoming so ubiquitous that ramp was sometimes in the rough position of actively relying on red sweepers to survive the early game, making Mana Leak and the like suddenly live. Ramp had to change, and Glimmerpost was one of the small things it did to shift towards the meta. But with Glimmerpost in the mix something had to give, and Inky was one of the cards that ended up being minimized.

Here is that exact feature playing out in a real ramp deck. This is the top-placing pure Wolf Run Ramp deck from SCG Standard Open: Los Angeles:

This is a pretty typical list these days. It plays the sheer amount of life gain that it does (Glimmerpost and Wurmcoil and Huntmaster and Thraggy, oh my!) simply because it has to in today’s metagame. Bonfire joins Slagstorm here, with Whipflare absent (many go the other direction and run all of the sweeps). Practically no targeted creature removal main (one Devil’s Play)—this deck basically plans to win by virtue of continuously raising its life total up while knocking out numerous cards at once rather than doing it one at a time. Even its sideboard only has a bare minimum of ways to change that possibility, with just a few targeted removal available and all with specialized purposes.

In the last three months, there have been only two Wolf Run Ramp lists in the Top 8s of SCG Standard Opens and seven total in the Top 16s. If we expand out to Wolf Run Blue, we almost double the Top 8 appearances to four, all inspired by Reid Duke SCG Open winning deck:

This deck, with its slight touch into red, is sometimes called a RUG list, but to me that touch is so small that I’m more inclined to think of it as Wolf Run Blue.

What these decks represent—both­ of them—is the face of ramp in a world that is largely oppressive to it. Ramp needs to look something like this if it wants to have a shot. It needs to be running the Glimmerposts and the sweepers, and it needs to minimize the Infect-based kill.

From the perspective of opposing midrange decks, though, this represents an opportunity.

Not only is their biggest problem less popular right now, but the most common strategy which was a huge KO for them is barely present at all any longer. Fighting against Primeval Titan was always hard, but when Titan could leave behind another path to victory after the fight and then in a late game still have a kill left laying around from sheer happenstance, it was backbreaking.

The “Return” of the Phoenix

“Return” is a bit of an overstatement, but it’s a purposeful one. Phoenixes, even Chandra’s Phoenix (let alone Kuldotha), have not been around long enough for there to be any real claim of a return on the larger scale.

One of the best techniques you can use to make good decks is to look to the past for inspiration. This can help you answer small questions like: “How many 1CC mana acceleration does this deck want as opposed to another?” or “Is this concept even sound?” This is a large reason that a number of people, myself included, have tried making MBC decks. There is a history there of decks that work, and you can learn from that history to inform you enough so that you don’t reinvent the wheel.

Similarly, there is a history with Big Red decks that exists. It goes way back to Ponza (from Brian Kowal), to even earlier to Jamie Wakefield and decks of his like Phoenix-Haups, to even earlier yet to any number of people’s home brews. Wakefield, though, was the person who could be called the Granddaddy of midrange, and he helped trail blaze the path we would all follow. When it came to midrange, Wakefield’s maxim was a useful one:

“The last fatty they can’t deal with kills them.”

Now, Magic is a game that is ever changing, and the particular formats of the game lend themselves to greater or lesser extents to certain decks. This moment, for example, is not particularly well suited to pure control decks. Control decks have a huge history in the game, but just because there is that history doesn’t mean that you can simply keep on carrying on and assume that the classic archetypes and approaches to those archetypes are going to remain the same.

Take GerryT only a few years ago and his well-professed hatred of Cruel Ultimatum style decks; it wasn’t that Cruel Ultimatum was bad nor was it that GerryT was being foolish in his dislike of it. It was a different thing entirely: Cruel Ultimatum is a hugely expensive tap-out style spell, and Gerry, when it has come to control decks, simply prefers a more traditional style of control. But it was not that kind of control’s moment.

And it isn’t a “last fatty” moment now.

This is actually a very interactive moment. Whether it is the sheer resilience of Zombies (along with its potential for dangerous speed) or the daunting threat of Geist of Saint Traft (or Hero of Bladehold or Talrand or…) of Delver or the threat of near instant death from Mono-Green Infect or the clockwork power of the various Pod decks, this is a moment where you have to be interacting with your opponent.

This is a moment more suited for the strategic interactions of a jiu jitsu expert rather than the brutal slugathon of two Rocky Balboas.

Rocky Balboa Magic is battlecruiser Magic. It is one player hitting the other as hard as they can, and then the other responding by hitting back as hard as they can, back and forth. That kind of Magic died when the dominance of ramp died.

And so informed by this, we must recognize that our decks need to interact right now and build them appropriately.

I started working on this deck a long time ago, basically with the printing of Batterskull. I would bring it to SCG Standard Opens to play between rounds of coverage. At one event with Zac Hall, Avacyn Restored was just out, and we stayed up late into the night playing it on Magic Online. It was good but not good enough.

Basically, I wasn’t so excited about this deck many months ago, especially during battlecruiser times. It had gotten all the way down to just under a 60% win percentage on Magic Online. I still don’t know how to translate Magic Online win percentages to real world win percentages, but I do know there is some kind of handicap on there, so it wasn’t exciting to see such a low percent.

Tweaks here, tweaks there, but mostly the shifting of the metagame, and right now I’m at 76% (63-20) with the current version, basically since Trading Post was added to the deck.

Here it is:

Let’s talk about what it is that makes this deck work just overall.

The deck runs a fair amount of removal in order to move things out of the early game. Bonfire has proven itself in numerous decks, and that is no different here. It acts as a solid removal spell for the masses at numerous points in the game but becomes truly scary when miracled out late. The ten removal spells keep the deck from being overwhelmed, but beyond that they all have the potential of going to the face. With Galvanic Blast actually being able to be consistently cast at metalcraft, their late game potential is truly scary.

After that, we are, in some ways, talking about a deck that is a kind of a pseudo-ramp list. With four Sphere of the Suns, four Pristine Talisman, and three Solemn Simulacrum, you have a ton of ways to build up your mana. This means that you can actually find yourself having consistently powerful turns in the mid game where you’re able to cast and resolve several relevant spells in a turn or simply cast a turn 4 Wurmcoil Engine. Your Bonfires tend to be very good with all of that mana, and your late game cards like Trading Post can be wildly effective. After sideboarding, there is a real potential to have even more late game, so this ramp can really matter. Phyrexian Metamorph can sometimes play mana duty here, becoming an additional early Talisman or Sphere just to push up the mana early.

You are also a deck that otherwise builds for a long game with a ton of life gain. Four Pristine Talisman, three Batterskull, two Wurmcoil Engine, two Trading Post, and four Phyrexian Metamorph can all work together to make sure that your life total stays high. Against the aggressive decks this is obviously good, but against the more controlling decks, like say a Solar Flare style Esper Control, this can be huge as well, giving you the chance to have a high enough life total that even three Sun Titans isn’t fast enough to make the game be over.

Finally, you are a deck that is resilient with threats. Kuldotha Phoenix is a hard creature to take care of. Batterskull can continuously reset itself (or jump onto an Inkmoth Nexus for a “surprise” kill). Wurmcoil Engine is a hard card to fight. Running four Phyrexian Metamorph can make their best card work “for” you. Trading Post ends up giving you a continuous stream of reusability.

Altogether, this deck just gels.

There are, of course, some potential question marks:

Solemn Simulacrum: Why not four? I want to be running four, but there are simply so many other cards which feel even more necessary. I’m unwilling to cut the removal, the other mana, or the other artifacts. About the only card that could be cut is one Phoenix, but I’ve had so much success with it that I’d prefer to leave it in.

Phyrexian Metamorph: Why four? In this current moment, if you’re running Metamorph I think the only reason to not run four is because you already have too many other things going on at that mana slot or you’re running Phantasmal Image. Metamorph does a lot of work for the deck, helping to answer Geist of Saint Traft (and the occasional other legend), Thragtusk, Sword of X and Y, Hero of Bladehold, Blade Splicer, and others. It’s actually surprising how often you just copy a Pristine Talisman early, then ride it for life, and then later use Trading Post to turn it into something scary.

Sphere of the Suns: Why four? Doesn’t it suck late in the game? Yes, it does a little. But the consistent acceleration in the early game is too important to let go, and now that you have Trading Post to turn it into something else the extra Spheres actually don’t feel at all bad.

Trading Post: Only two? Well, the more I’ve played Trading Post, the more I’ve come to realize it is a support card, not a central engine to a deck. It takes a lot of effort to get Trading Post online, and you generally really need to reserve that moment for when you’re fully set up or at least safe. Magic isn’t very forgiving right now, and I’m happy to use this in the late-late game but am not excited about seeing it earlier.

Inkmoth Nexus: Doesn’t this just hurt your mana? With the plentiful other mana, not so much. This also helps give you metalcraft, an important factor for Kuldotha Phoenix. Also, though, you can use Inkmoth Nexus to just buy you time in the mid game to try to get to the late game. Judicious sacrificing of the Inkmoth Nexus, particularly in a race, can be huge. It wears a Batterskull really well too.

Kuldotha Phoenix: Why bother? The air is a good place to be right now. There often aren’t many decks that can fight a Phoenix in the air, and you can set up great races, particularly when you have so much life gain going on to support a race. Also, like Inkmoth, Phoenix loves a Batterskull, and you can turn around races incredibly well with that combo. On defense Phoenix is great, too, trading with almost everything and then coming back later to really muck up the plans of an opponent.

The sideboard is largely straightforward. Pillar of Flame is there for any Bird/Elf decks and is also there for those decks you need to remove creatures early and for good (Infect/Zombies). Ancient Grudge is to fight against any meaningful artifacts from an opponent, particularly cards like Sword of War and Peace. Combust is for Delver primarily but is also useful against white-based creatures in general. Slagstorm number three is simply there as more useful sweep for when you’re in the market for that kind of thing.

The less straightforward cards are as follows:

1 Negate: This deck isn’t a deck that wants to get into a counter fight as a part of its primary strategy. However, particularly against some decks, there can be a critical moment where you need to simply stop a spell from happening. Typically, these are any of the spell-based decks (like Esper Control), decks that jump up to Karn after sideboarding, and Infect. Against a deck like Infect, you never want to be clogged with countermagic, but you do like the ability to stop an untimely Growth effect.

2 Mindslaver: If your meta doesn’t have as much control, cut this down to one Mindslaver and frown a little that you’re making your deck less fun. This card can do shocking things to a drawn-out game, particularly when planeswalkers are involved. While creative players might bring it in against Birthing Pod—something I’ve considered doing but have never done—it is here primarily for the particularly slow matchups.

2 Karn Liberated: If you’re going to go big, this is the card to go big with in Standard. Few things play battlecruiser Magic better than Karn (hi, Nicol), and if you’re looking to do so this is the go-to card. I do side this in against Birthing Pod because games can largely flatten out with both players looking for a card to go over the top; this can answer nearly anything they do and is a way to get Pod off of the table.

2 Magmaquake: This is a great sweep spell against non-fliers, particularly when you are playing against decks that can go big in other ways like planeswalkers. Pay special attention to the fact that Magmaquake will hurt your own Karn if it is out. Instant speed sweep is a powerful effect, and you can bring this in as a means to fight big creatures (replacing your weaker removal) or as a means to help fight small creatures (supplementing your other removal).

I’ve been playing this deck a lot lately, and if I wasn’t commentating at this weekend’s SCG Open Series: Atlanta featuring the Invitational, I’d be deciding between this deck and Mono-Green Infect for the tourney. While I don’t think it is a reasonable choice in a land of Primeval Titans, I feel comfortable saying that those decks are likely to not be around too much.

In the coming weeks, we are approaching ever closer to the release of Return to Ravnica. I, for one, am incredibly excited about it. Since my preferred guild isn’t available yet, I know I’ll be playing for Izzet at the Prerelease.

What about you?

Until next week,

Adrian Sullivan

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