Removed From Game – Having Fun in Standard

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Monday, January 11th – Unlike some, Rich believes Standard is an incredibly varied environment right now, especially in the cosy confines of the Tournament Practice room. Join him for some tales from the virtual world of Jund filth and mono-red topdeckery. Which is probably not a word.

It seems like a natural progression from the Twelve Decks of Christmas to recount how I actually fared with them, especially as I’ve had requests for match reports about various decks in the holiday season special. Of course, I was interested in seeing whether the deck theory came true in practice, but above all I was hoping to have some fun. In this article, therefore, there’ll be a mixture of reportage, tips, tricks, and some advice on what decks to play if you want to have a good time as well as a good victory. I began, as you might expect, with Jund:

Match 1 — Jund versus Jund

Well, that’s a handy start, with the best deck going head to head in a mirror match. Having aimed Lightning Bolt at his Great Sable Stag, my first Cascading Bloodbraid Elf gave me Sprouting Thrinax. I managed a second Bloodbraid, but his Cascade was super-powerful, using Bituminous Blast into Magma Spray to kill both of them. A follow-up Maelstrom Pulse made my Thrinax tokens irrelevant. My next ‘exploding’ creature was Broodmate Dragon, and although he had Terminate for one half, the other got the job done. 1-0.

Game 2 was far less satisfying. He mulliganed down to five on the play. Borderland Ranger at least helped prevent him being landshy, while once again my first Bloodbraid Elf gave me Sprouting Thrinax for free. For FREE. We forget how monstrous some of this stuff can be. The first Planeswalker turned up for him, and his Garruk Wildspeaker quickly made a Beast. My second Bloodbraid Cascaded this time into Blightning, emptying his head, and redirecting the damage to kill Garruk. That was his cue to concede. 2-0.

Match 2 — Jund versus Cruel Control

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa wrote recently about avoiding doing things on autopilot. If you didn’t know a particular matchup, what would you suppose Lightning Bolt would be for? The fundamentals of Magic say that Lightning Bolt is to kill awkward opposing creatures, potential blockers, and occasionally to aim at an opponent’s face, ideally when they’re at 3 or less, or you absolutely have them dead sooner rather than later.

When my opponent opened on a Crumbling Necropolis, I came to the conclusion that he probably had a sum total of zero worthwhile targets in his deck. Sphinx Of Jwar Isle can’t be targeted, and Sphinx Of Lost Truths needs two Bolts to finish it off, which, combined with the potential +3 cards from it being Kicked, is almost certainly enough to say we’re losing badly.

As a result, by the end of turn 3 he was down to 11, courtesy of triple Lightning Bolt. Struggling for land, he couldn’t stop me resolving Broodmate Dragon, and once again Terminate only accounted for half of my six mana beating. A 4/4 flyer for three mana, with a second 4/4 flyer for three mana in the same card? Dear God, this deck is bonkers. 11, 7, 3, Good Game. 1-0.

In Game 2, I found out how resilient the Cruel Control deck can be. Like Jund, it has cards that wildly swing the game. Having opened with Mind Rot, a Kicked Goblin Ruinblaster, Blightning, and a second Kicked Goblin Ruinblaster, I was feeling in good shape. All that was needed was to administer the final blow, which was Broodmate Dragon… which met Essence Scatter. Oh well, surely my next Bloodbraid would Cascade into something useful, like… Trace Of Abundance. Hmm, not sure I like that card in this deck. In Valakut, it’s arguably more justified, and it does protect against Ruinblasters, but still, it’s hardly what you want to Cascade into, ever.

The irrelevant cards continued to mount, although Mind Rot emptied away his last card, which was Cruel Ultimatum. He cast Chandra Nalaar, but Maelstrom Pulse took care of her. When I drew Bloodbraid Elf, and Cascaded into Blightning, I knew I was in business, except his one card turned out to be Double Negative. How exactly was this guy still breathing?

Next turn, everything changed as he tapped out. Mind Spring for six. Ah. Shortly afterwards a Sphinx came to town, and shortly after that I discovered the power of one of those lands that you feel were probably left over from Kamigawa Block — Magosi, The Waterveil. This enabled him to avoid the turn where my remaining creatures would have killed him, and instead administer back to back attacks with his Sphinx for the win. Irritating. 1-1.

Since I’m telling you what actually happened, rather than making stuff up, it won’t surprise you that Game 3 was nowhere near as interesting. With him starting at just five, I used Trace Of Abundance on turn 2 to accelerate into a Kicked Goblin Ruinblaster on turn 3, and turn 4 Mind Rot was enough to have him throw in the towel. 2-1.

Match 3 — Jund versus RGB Jund-ish

RGB? Surely that makes it Jund? Well, not really, at least not in the fairly standard iteration that’s around at the moment, since this is a deck that features Violent Ultimatum. It was quickly apparent that my Lightning Bolts were considerably suboptimal against his pair of Putrid Leeches. Why? Because he utilised the ability the way it so often works best — by simply having it exist as a possibility. Had he ever spent two life, the Leech would have been in the bin as quick as you could say ‘Red, instant’, but instead he simply rode them through all obstacles, of which there weren’t many. 0-1.

Game 2, and discard did its thing. I opened with Blightning, and the following Bloodbraid Elf Cascaded into Mind Rot, and that really doesn’t leave any opposing deck with many options in hand. He got a Sprouting Thrinax down, but more pressure came from Bloodbraid into Terminate, and the cards he’d lost to the discard made the difference. 1-1.

The decider was about curve, and his was superior. With the Putrid Leech again turning up on cue turn two, he added a Great Sable Stag, before Cascading Bloodbraid Elf into Sprouting Thrinax. Since this is exactly the kind of nonsense I’m trying to do, I can’t complain, and he wins with the only part Violent Ultimatum played being discarded in Game 2. 1-2.

Match 4 — Jund versus Vampires

It’s no secret that I don’t like the Vampires deck, but I really enjoyed a moment of utter brutality in Game 1. I think my problem with the deck is that it attempts to do unfair things in Constructed with cards that feel like they’re mostly for Limited. Hey, I’ve got a 2/1 First Striker for two. Look, see my super-powerful 2/3 flyer with Lifelink and Deathtouch. I shall now do my finest Zac Hill impression and say, ‘Vampire Nighthawk — it’s a creature. That dies to everything in the known universe. Path, Journey, O Ring, Bolt, Terminate… Guys, it’s just a monster.’

Nonetheless, people will insist on trying to make it do the business in Constructed. To go with his Vampire Nighthawk, my opponent had forced me to trade in my Sprouting Thrinax for three 1/1s, thanks to Gatekeeper Of Malakir, which is a card I can actually get behind, because it’s a spell first and monster second.

At this point, things seem fair, but he rolls out one of the few things in the Vampires deck that does seem to be a little filthy. This is the well-known combo of Vampire Nocturnus, and having a Black card on top of your library. To be fair, this happens more often than not, and the purpose of the fetchlands in the deck is to thin the library of those pesky Swamps (which, if you’re new to the game and don’t know this, aren’t Black, but colorless.)

So, he has Nocturnus online, and proceeds to combat, where his freshly be-winged Gatekeeper Of Malakir piles in as a 4/3 Flyer alongside the beefed-up Nighthawk at 4/4. Prior to declaring the no blockers I currently have, I spend five mana, and the following carnage ensues: Bituminous Blast aims to take out the Vampire Nocturnus. It Cascades into Bloodbraid Elf. That Cascades into Maelstrom Pulse, which promptly puts the Vampire Nighthawk in the bin. The 3/2 comes into play. The Blast resolves, and Vampire Nocturnus also hits the bin. Gatekeeper Of Malakir does a passable imitation of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and lost his wings, and two of my three Sprouting Thrinax tokens proceed to block and kill it.

I begin the next turn with a Bloodbraid Elf and a Thrinax token facing an empty board that had started the preceding combat with 13 power of flyers. So much fun. 1-0.

I was worried for a while that he might force a decider. With one of the quicker starts the deck offers, Vampire Hexmage and Bloodghast nibbled away quite effectively, and when Malakir Bloodwitch put me to nine, Bloodghast became more of a problem. At this point, I only have a Sprouting Thrinax. Still, I Blightning him to nothing, and then stabilize the board with Siege-Gang Commander, putting in his first appearance of the day. His Tendrils Of Corruption send him up to 30 life, but I’m not interested in his life total, I’m interested in mine, and it isn’t going down anymore. Despite two Bloodbraid Elfs not really Cascading into excitement, the deck then delivers consecutive Broodmate Dragons, and my 16 power of Flyers, unlike his 13 power from earlier in the game, stick around. 2-0.

Match 5 — Jund versus Mono-Black Control

So this match wasn’t even on my radar. Somehow it feels like there’s added pressure when you’re being posed problems by cards that you weren’t expecting. A card like Sadistic Sacrament for example. In Game One, he lays his third Swamp, and runs this out, taking three Bloodbraid Elf from my deck. I mentally shrug, and believe that I, playing the best deck in the format, must be able to overcome dross like this.

As the game continues, I find (in some small way due to the change in ratio between land and spells in my deck) that I’m drawing fewer threats. Eventually, though, I find Siege-Gang Commander, which looks likely to go the distance. He casts Sorin Markov, but thankfully I’m able to have enough mana spare to activate Siege-Gang twice, and still have five damage left on the board to kill him. Nonetheless, it was all very close, and I mentally sit up straighter and pay a bit more attention. Perhaps this isn’t a comedy all-the-black-cards-I-own Tournament Practice room special. 1-0.

Game 2 — er, yeah, it really isn’t a joke deck thrown together. Everything I do gets more or less instantly destroyed, and his Swamp count goes up and up. And up. And up. With Tendrils Of Corruptions heading towards double digits, I’m giving him plenty of time to find a way to beat me. And he does, with a Kicked Sadistic Sacrament. Two Bloodbraid Elf, a Siege-Gang Commander, three Broodmate Dragon, four Sprouting Thrinax, four Maelstrom Pulse, and a Blightning. All gone, like my chances. 1-1.

As we start Game 3, for the first time in the match I can feel the clock ticking towards that stupid Sacrament. Despite my best efforts, he gets there, but this time it isn’t (quite) over. I still have a Broodmate Dragon on the board, and we’re both out of cards. He’s at 27 life, which is seven hits. I, of course, won’t be drawing anything useful this side of Christmas 2037, but as threats go, my 4/4 flyer is big. 27, 23, 19, 15, 11 (I’m starting to hope), 7 (I’m thinking I can pull this one out of the fire).

He draws, with 10 mana available. He casts Diabolic Tutor. He casts Sign In Blood and falls to five. He has four mana left, which inconveniently for me is the casting cost of Tendrils Of Corruption. Sigh. Five becomes fifteen, and the following turn his second Sadistic Sacrament removes every remaining spell from my deck. 1-2.

Match record for Jund: 3-2.

I felt irritated by that loss to the Mono-Black deck, but that may be entirely because of my lack of understanding of the format. Perhaps he’s sitting at home, reading this, yelling at his monitor that his deck is designed specifically to give Jund no chance of victory. Goodness knows, there are plenty of people designing decks in precisely that way. Overall, it was easy to see why Jund is so – if not popular — good. I can’t really imagine wanting to play this in a tournament myself, because I’d expect to be outplayed by better people in the mirror, and hated by a Metagame developing firmly against the Cascade merchants. Nonetheless, it was well worth the couple of hours playing with The Best Deck.

Up next…

Before playing with it, this struck me as a fairly simple deck. Sometimes you get a choice, but for the most part you just run out whatever you can afford each turn. If that turned out to be true, then the problem would be what happened when the deck faced a bad matchup.

Match 1 — Mono-Red versus Mono-Red

It’s always nice to win the dice roll, but that’s rarely more true than a mono-Red mirror. Game 1 is a classic example, with us both curving out nicely, using removal effectively, and me killing him just before his extra card on turn one might have turned the tide. 1-0.

I’m the first to say that sideboarding is a weakness for me, and that’s true I think of almost all players below a fully-fledged Pro level, and probably true for plenty of Pros as well. So many of us only playtest pre-sideboard, and an effective sideboard is all about knowing the deck intimately, and all the decks you’re likely to face. At this point in proceedings, I know neither.

Still, it’s pretty apparent that Dragon’s Claw is sitting in the board for just such mirror matches. I’m aware that there’s going to be a heavy price for casting it on turn two, but if I’m not prepared to cast it and take my medicine, why play with it? Down it comes, and I duly take a beating, with my removal impotent in my hand. Will the Dragon be enough to, er, Claw my way back into the game? My opponent doesn’t think so, who comments that he doesn’t like it in the Sideboard, and thinks it’s a liability.

I have no view one way or another about this — it’s not my deck after all — but it makes sense to take some notes. Magic is a game of huge opinions, and it surprises me how infrequently we take the time to back it up with facts where facts are available. Although this is purely anecdotal, the Dragon’s Claw netted me eleven life, and I ended up winning the game at one. Had I not cast it turn two, I could have saved myself five life via a Lightning Bolt on his no-longer alive Plated Geopede. Potentially, that was the correct play anyway, and to wait before casting the Claw. Nonetheless, it certainly seemed worthy of its place in this game, and I left feeling that I’d been somewhat fortunate. 2-0.

Match 2 — Mono-Red versus BRG LD

Against what? Okay, so this is another take on the Jund colors, but it’s a loooong way from the conventional norm. Instead, this is a highly anti-Jund concoction, that uses cards like Demolish at four mana and Acidic Slime at five to go along with staple Goblin Ruinblaster to constantly keep opposing decks tied down on mana. The thing is, if there’s ever a deck that doesn’t care about Land Destruction, it’s the mono-Red. Yes it’s possible to stop the deck getting to five mana and Unearthing Hell’s Thunder or getting to Burst Lightning with Kicker, but other than that, it’s just not an issue.

In Game 1, I get a nice solid opening of Goblin Guide into Teetering Peaks, with Hell’s Thunder a turn three beating. He’s already at 8, having laid two land, and with Hellspark Elemental and a second Teetering Peaks, he’s within Burst Lightning range, and it’s 1-0 without him casting anything meaningful.

That doesn’t exactly give me a lot to work on when it comes to the Sideboard, but if he’s as slow as I think he is, Manabarbs is a must. Plenty of decks have very few ways to deal with it, and even if they do, it comes at a price. He’s already at nine when I cast it, and Acidic Slime deals him five damage to get rid of it. My five mana that follows is Burst Lightning with Kicker, and it doesn’t cost me anything. A thoroughly efficient 2-0.

Match 3 — Mono-Red versus Exalted

And this is what I was worried about. He immediately offers me resistance in the form of Akrasan Squire and Sigiled Paladin. Urrghh! (That’s shorthand for ‘Oh now that’s not playing fair. How am I meant to send Ball Lightning into the red zone against First Strike? I’m not happy. Any time you feel like this, go right ahead and use my patented terminology.) Urrghh becomes Urrrrrgghhhh when First Strike continues to be a theme of his deck, with Knight Of The White Orchid and a Second Sigiled Paladin coming down.

To be fair, I’m holding my own at least, using removal to keep the board at least vaguely uncluttered, and hold out some hope that I can maneuver my way to a place of strength. But talking of strength, he’s about to show some, and it’s Holy Strength! Pardon? I thought that was a card you didn’t play with in Limited, but apparently it’s something you do play with in Constructed. He puts it on his First Strike guy, adds Nimbus Wings (seriously?) and is left with a 4/6 Flying Exalted man.

I’m utterly destroyed, and he repeats the dose in Game 2, with an additional kicking coming just when I see an opening. Rather boldly, in my humble opinion, he attacks me with everything, and I have plenty of mana to get myself back into the game. I’m visualizing Ball Lightning, an Unearthed Hellspark Elemental, plus what’s already on board. In my upkeep, he casts Silence. I throw up my hands in horror (no, not in the literary device sense, but actually) and die. (Not literally.) 0-2.

Match 4 — Mono-Red versus Black-Red Vampires

As a mono-Black deck, I’d imagine this would be a good matchup for the Red, as long as you could find a Lightning Bolt when you needed one for their Vampire Nighthawks. Trouble is, this guy had added red to the mix, and that turned out to be critical. He opened up typically with an irrelevant Bloodghast, a similarly neither-here-nor-there Gatekeeper Of Malakir, and a useful but quickly Bolted Vampire Nighthawk.

What tilted the game his way was the red aspect of the deck. Taking a leaf out of Jund’s book, he cast Blightning, and when I looked to accelerate via Elemental Appeal he had a Lightning Bolt ready. I was still in it, but in the end I died in most unconventional fashion, with Underworld Dreams eking out the last few points. 0-1.

Game 2, I took a proper kicking. My Lightning Bolts went missing, he landed two Vampire Nighthawks, and even I can admit that if you leave them unmolested they will eventually do something unfunny like making you dead. Multiple Terminates didn’t exactly help my cause. 0-2. For the second match running, I felt like I hadn’t really been in the match at any point. While it’s not always a problem for someone of my standard to be playing a deck that behaves in that way — it’s sort of on rails, and doesn’t have a way to overcome adversity — I was starting to see why really good players are reluctant to play something like this.

Match 5 — Mono-Red versus Jund

Although I’ve done some powerful things, this has been an unsatisfying set, simply because I don’t feel like I’m really driving the deck, but I’m more like a passive spectator. Thankfully, the final match proved comfortably the most interesting. I mulligan to six in the opener, but still come screaming out of the gates, attacking for nine on turn three. Of course, the red deck empties its hand pretty quickly, which does make it vulnerable to Jund discard, unless you can manage to put some Unearth guys in there.

I didn’t, and found myself with an empty hand after his Mind Rot took game-winning burn away. Still, that’s exactly the kind of situation where this kind of deck excels, since fully 28 cards in the deck are great topdecks. Ball Lightning? That’ll do nicely. 1-0.

I like Teetering Peaks, but one of the saddest plays in the deck is when you lay Peaks turn 2, sacrificing the ability to cast either Hellspark Elemental or a Plated Geopede, and then watch your 4/2 Goblin Guide get eaten by a Lightning Bolt. Oh well, just a minor setback, and I get to work. His first Blightning presented me with some difficult choices, but his second a turn later gave me no choice at all. I was empty-handed and back into topdeck mode. Still, that’s somewhere good, and I edge ahead before he finds Bloodbraid Elf, Cascading into Sprouting Thrinax. The Elf isn’t an issue, but the Thrinax plus the resulting spiny things is a chore.

I keep drawing threats, and clear the board. For the first time, I feel like I’m favorite, but he repeats the Bloodbraid Elf into Sprouting Thrinax trick, and this time I really am out of answers. 1-1.

If I have a favorite card in the deck, it has to be Hell’s Thunder. When you tap three for Ball Lightning, you do so whilst simultaneously holding your breath. That one toughness feels so vulnerable (although Standard decks are currently using very few ‘cute’ ways of dealing one damage). Meanwhile, you tap three for Hell’s Thunder, and fully expect four to come off their life total moments later. Knowing that there’s four more damage in the late game once you reach five mana is the icing on the cake.

Here in the decider, I curve through Goblin Guide and Plated Geopede into turn three Hell’s Thunder. And turn four Hell’s Thunder. And turn five Hell’s Thunder. Oh I’m sorry, no Terminates? 2-1.

While both of these decks went 3-2, Jund gave me a much more enjoyable play experience. The red deck is the kind of thing I might dial up at two o’clock in the morning after a two hour session of Control mirrors. In that setting, piling in relentlessly and topdecking left, right, and center, would probably seem very refreshing.

Join me next week for more tales from the world of Standard.

Until then, as ever, thanks for reading.