SCG Talent Search – Molten Between Two Volcanoes

Tuesday, December 7th – My topic today will be about the one card in Valakut that many people think is good (but it’s actually not), a practical lesson on how to prevent Treasons in your camp, and a journey between two volcanoes.

Hello again!

Just a week ago I said to Dan Barrett (consider this as an advertisement of his awesome articles in the Casual/Other category of this contest) that it was warmer in Moscow than in Edinburgh – it was zero degrees centigrade, and I wanted to break some stereotypes about Russia in response to the news that Europe was buried under snow. These careless words didn’t stay unpunished – it’s minus twenty-five centigrade (-13 °F), and there’s a real-deal blizzard outside now.

The cold weather is the best time for writing: no desire to go outside, a glass of mulled wine, and a hot topic to write about. And what can be hotter than a volcano? It’s exactly how I decided to write about Valakut again. I like this deck very much, and it got me into this contest after all, so it’d be nice to write about it in my finishing article. Just in a week I’ll face my fate – win or lose. As I’m eager to fight for my future, I might as well choose the weapon I know best – Valakut.

My topic today will be about the one card that many people think is good (but it’s actually not), a practical lesson on how to prevent Treasons in your camp, and a journey between two volcanoes. And there will also be a bonus section about another card that’s real (or even unreal) good, despite being considered solely draft tech by the majority.

Volcano number one

Let’s start with my decklist, as I made some changes from the last time.

In my previous article, I talked about a choice between Summoning Trap and Oracle of Mul Daya. Now they both see play instead of Wurmcoil Engine because that titanic Wurm is too slow against aggro and too clunky against non-aggro, so he doesn’t carry its weight in this deck anymore, while Summoning Trap is now an integral part of my strategy against almost the whole field. Wait, not only against counterspells? Yes, we’ll get to that in a minute!

Sideboard changes

Looking at my

very first article

for the SCG Talent Search, we’ll find such a sideboard for Valakut:

1 Swamp
4 Memoricide
3 Pyroclasm
3 Sylvok Replica
4 Obstinate Baloth
Updated version
1 Swamp
4 Memoricide
3 Pyroclasm
3 Nature’s Claim
2 Gaea’s Revenge
2 Acidic Slime

Sylvok Replicas were swapped for Nature’s Claims – just because I was wrong about which type of white aggro to expect. The format was very wide-open just after SOM was released, so this adjustment looks very logical. Nature’s Claim is here to beat Argentum Armor. The Claim has a drawback, but its cheaper cost easily outweighs the drawback – it’s often necessary to cast Nature’s Claim and removal on the same turn or simply cast Claim on turn 2 and play a tapland to provide normal board development without tempo loss on subsequent turns. I tried different numbers and finally arrived at three as an optimal amount – I never worried about drawing two.

I cut Obstinate Baloths for other four cards. Which ones? I’ll speak about them later, just because my reasons to cut Baloths are more important. One can say that Obstinate Baloth is a wonderful, flexible creature that has its uses against each and every deck that tries to rush you. I think that it’s actually a very dangerous delusion and here’s why.

Is Obstinate Baloth an auto-include against aggro?

In my previous article I commented on Obstinate Baloth as such:

“To make sure that those red mages are kept in check. Later, when the metagame is more stable, we can decrease their count, but every post-rotation Standard is full of fast aggressive decks, so we need to be prepared.”

So why isn’t Obstinate Baloth very good in Valakut anymore? Because he’s powerful and flexible in a vacuum, but in real life we have problems that he can’t solve. Everyone loves flexible cards: they’re good when you want to keep a matchup decent after sideboarding but don’t want to waste a large amount of sideboard slots on it. But now we have a completely different situation: tough matches that we need to improve drastically; so we need cards that solve particular problems instead of buying us a turn or two.

What exacerbates our misery is that aggro matchups aren’t only tough but also very different. They present us with various angles of attack, not limited to creature hordes. The most important of problems to solve are Argentum Armor and Mark of Mutiny.

So let’s try to figure out how to deal with real threats. The first one is a combination of Argentum Armor, Sword of Body and Mind, and Quest for the Holy Relic. The main problem with weenie decks is that they can be incredibly fast, fully charging up a Quest on turn 2 or 3. If they do, Nature’s Claim is your only chance. If they don’t, they just fall apart, as Ornithopter beats can never get them anywhere. They’ll probably search for Sword of Body and Mind instead of Argentum Armor at this stage of game – because Sword protects creatures from Pyroclasm and gives them a chance to attack through blockers.

Our strategy in this match is all about removal. Side out three Oracles of Mul Daya and three Summoning Traps in the favor of three Nature’s Claim and three Pyroclasms. Without equipment, White Weenie (WW) probably won’t be able to create enough pressure to force us to play Obstinate Baloth, and with equipment on the other side of the table, Baloth is useless. So, Baloth isn’t good against WW, but what about red decks?

The two most successful red decks now are Boros and Vampires (yes, Vampires is actually a red deck at its heart that just painted itself black). While Obstinate Baloth is the powerful answer to the true mono-red deck, I think that Mono-Red isn’t a good choice anymore. We do want to beat classic Mono-Red as well, but I prefer to do it by killing all their small creatures rather than by gaining life. Our true problem here is a super-fast Goblin rush, but when they’re explosive, Obstinate Baloth is expected to be too slow anyway.

All red decks have a powerful weapon against us – Mark of Mutiny. Boros can combine the power of your Titan with a pair of Teetering Peaks for eleven damage; Vampires has no access to Peaks, but they can sacrifice the Titan to Viscera Seer’s ability. Both uses of Mark of Mutiny leave us with the fact that it’s basically impossible to win with Primeval Titan. Can Obstinate Baloth solve this problem? No. Could he buy enough time to dig for Avenger of Zendikar? In U/G/R Ramp – probably yes (with all their cantrips). In Valakut – definitely not. What should we do? Dispel the delusion that Obstinate Baloth is good in Valakut, and find a solution that actually works.

Primeval Titan and Mark of Mutiny

How to win with Titan against Mark of Mutiny? There are two ways.

First, a complicated way: create a situation where you win exactly on the turn when the Titan enters the battlefield. Such a situation usually involves a Khalni Heart Expedition and a burn spell. That is, by the way, one of the reasons to play Arc Trail over Pyroclasm maindeck: two Mountains from the Expedition + two Valakuts = twelve damage. Regular land drops give us an additional six. At this point, if an opponent didn’t use fetchlands, he’s probably at two, so Lightning Bolt or Arc Trail seems clearly superior to Pyroclasm.

Second, a more interesting way: hit Primeval Titan (or Avenger of Zendikar, it doesn’t matter) from a Summoning Trap during the opponent’s attack phase, then win on your turn.

Most people are so used to siding out Summoning Trap against non-counterspell decks, such that they completely miss how powerful a weapon it can be against Mark of Mutiny. I like to compare it to Mistbind Clique – you catch your opponent during their attack step with a huge blocker and assuredly ruin his plans for that turn. Clique does it by locking your opponent’s mana, and Trap does it by blanking Mark of Mutiny and by forcing the opponent to find an immediate answer or lose. Clique and Trap even both have very similar, embedded weaknesses you can hardly control – lack of creatures in your top seven cards and lack of Faeries on the battlefield (presumably due to some instant removal).

The main argument against Summoning Trap is that you may easily hit nothing. But let’s face it: if you cast Baloth and have no beaters in the next seven cards, you’ll lose anyway. It’s a common argument used by Eldrazi Green players: when you hit nothing with a Trap, it still mills seven bad topdecks.

Weird math confirming that Summoning Trap is good

The simplest way to look at the probability of hitting a fatty with Summoning Trap is the concept called “negative proof.” Odds of hitting a creature equal “one minus the odds of fizzling.” Assuming that you have 47 cards in your library before casting the Trap (assuming it’s turn 4 on the play, and you’ve searched three lands out of your deck), and all eight large creatures are still in the deck, you have a 39/47 chance of the top card not being a creature. The second card’s chance is 38/46, etc. The final chance of fizzling is, surprisingly, 24.4%, so you’ll hit a creature 75.6% of the time. If you have one of your creatures in hand, the chance of successfully Trapping decreases to 70.3% and to 64.2% if you have only six creatures in your library. On the other hand, if you’ve packed your deck with additional creatures (suppose four), the chance to hit one of them is ninety percent.

I’d suggest that Baloth neither gives us a seventy-percent chance to win nor does it win ninety-percent of matches by itself, so we might as well leave him alone.

Say no to math, let’s talk about tech again

While Summoning Trap is our additional win condition, there’s a problem: fast removal is still needed to survive until you hit six mana. Luckily, my build contains six maindeck burn spells and three additional Pyroclasms. Why not four? Firstly, because nine is almost always enough, and secondly, because we have only three cards to side out in these matches (Oracle of Mul Daya). Additionally, our removal is mostly sorceries. It’s not a big problem because nobody plays Goblin Bushwhacker anymore (except for Goblins, obviously), and you’ll always have time to cast removal. Anyway, it’s still a good idea to hold a Lightning Bolt to kill a guy in response to equipping or for crucial engine pieces like Kalastria Highborn or Fauna Shaman.

Duress is another problem from the Twilight tribe. But there’s no better strategy against them, so we just go to fight, remembering that we should mulligan hands that lose to a single Duress.

There’s an interesting solution used by U/R/G Ramp pilots: Tumble Magnet. No, it’s not the tech that I promised at the beginning – our special tech has its place in another section (and let’s be honest – only a deaf man hasn’t heard about Tumble Magnet by now). Tumble Magnet looks interesting because of a potential tempo advantage, an ability to stop an Argentum Armored creature, and an ability to serve as a preemptive and proactive answer to Mark of Mutiny. An additional bonus is that Valakut could care less about a three-counter usage limit of the Tumble Magnet. And the latest tech from Vampires – Demon of Death’s Gate – looks silly in the face of the Tumble Magnet. And Magnet is basically the only answer that Valakut can have to the Demon.

But if we look more closely, it will become clear that, in contrast with U/G/R, we have no Jace to protect, and we don’t really need that tempo advantage. Tumble Magnet is too slow to deal with turn 2 or turn 3 Quest, it can’t save our Titan from being slaughtered by Viscera Seer, it doesn’t prevent Valakut opponents from killing us just by casting Cultivates after having landed the Titan. In this regard, Tumble Magnet looks very similar to… Obstinate Baloth! It doesn’t win matches; it just buys time. But if I don’t want to play Baloth, why would I play Magnet? I won’t discount Tumble Magnet as an option, but as soon as Demon of Death’s Gate gains in popularity, the Tumble Magnet may be considered for sideboard or maindeck inclusion.

Let’s return to our poor, but still


, Baloth

Now that the format’s defined, threats are identified and solutions (or what I believe to be solutions) are found; it’s time to cut poor Baloths from the board for actual, useful cards. This way we save four sideboard slots by adjusting our strategy against some matchups. What cards should we run instead? I think that the best idea is to improve our mirror match and to keep our control match positive.

Slots for control decks (and U/G/R Ramp) are two Gaea’s Revenges. I said in my very first article that there’s no need to improve good and not very common matchups. But now U/W is back in full force, with Luminarch Ascension and Leyline of Sanctity (even maindeck), so we won’t stay unprepared: losing good matches is always frustrating.

U/x control decks are very customizable decks, and a strategy against them usually depends on their build or on the opposing pilot’s style, so I can’t provide an exact sideboarding guide. Anyway, here are some thoughts: Gaea’s Revenge is auto-include, all burn is auto-exclude. If you see U/W with Luminarch Ascension – side out all burn and pack Acidic Slimes or even Nature’s Claim; Memoricide would be useful against more traditional black-colored builds.

U/G/R is a different story. They’ll side in land destruction (older builds use Goblin Ruinblaster, and newer ones play Acidic Slime). Acidic Slime can also trade with Gaea’s Revenge after destroying your land. Bad news but nothing outstanding. Side in Gaea’s Revenges and Acidic Slimes instead of burn spells. The last two slots are debatable and often change after game 2. If they have full four Acidic Slimes, you should side in 2-3 Pyroclasms to deal with both Acidic Slime and Lotus Cobra, if not – keep 2-3 Lightning Bolts to deal with Jace.

You see, there’s no help from Obstinate Baloth in these matches as well. It was all that I wanted to say about poor Obstinate Baloth. I assume that he’ll be reluctant to leave the deck, but don’t be afraid to be harsh to him – his example will be a good lesson for your other pets once they start underperforming. Volcanic decks require strong decisions. Now let’s talk about the second volcano: the one ruled by Gerry Thompson.

Volcano number two: Gerry Thompson and three Forests.

If you have access to the StarCityGames.com Premium, you probably noticed Gerry T’s Valakut list with some short comments

in this article.

If you don’t have access to Premium, here’s the list.

Gerry T is known as the one of the most influential deckbuilders of the modern era, so it would be useful to compare his list with my own and explain some differences – and even challenge his choices.

First, you may notice that Gerry has cut Obstinate Baloths from the deck. He didn’t explain his reasons for this, but I believe they were similar to mine. I notice that Gerry has less burn (seven spells post-board compared to my nine) but more Harrows to develop his board.

Another tough point is mana. Gerry plays only three basic Forests, which I believe to be insufficient, especially once Gerry plays a full four Harrows. I don’t play Harrow because I don’t like to see it Mana Leaked or just have it as a dead card when I know that my opponent has Mana Leak. My fourth and fifth Forests are swapped for Khalni Gardens and a fetchland. Fetchlands have synergy with Khalni Heart Expedition, but I’d rather have more resilience and an ability to recover from an Acidic Slime or two.

A fetchland, while debatable, still has merit, I’d strongly recommend not playing Khalni Garden. Gerry mentioned that his list is a kind of experiment to figure out what’s good and what isn’t. I experimented with different cards, and Khalni Garden has proven itself to be weak. Why? Goblin Ruinblaster can’t destroy a Forest. A KhalniGarden? With joy!

You’ll almost never want to search for Khalni Garden with Primeval Titan, and Garden is worse than a basic Forest at every point of the game if you didn’t get it in your starting hand – drawing a tapped green source when you need a second green mana to recover after land destruction is always frustrating. You notice that I play Raging Ravine, and all of Khalni Garden’s weaknesses are applicable to Ravine as well. Yes, it’s true, and I’m experimenting with six Forests and no Raging Ravine now; even though, in the case of Raging Ravine, the same weaknesses are merged with a powerful and uncounterable attacker and not just 0/1 vegetable.

Molten between two volcanoes: Mirror strategies

Since the Valakut mirror is very important (mirrors between the most popular decks are always important), we should pay some attention to it. There’s no clear recipe – even if it existed, everybody would use it, annihilating the effect – so let’s talk about different strategies.

My proposal for the mirror is Memoricide. The matchup is mostly about Primeval Titan if the game doesn’t last too long, and Memoricide allows you to decrease an opponent’s chances drastically, even if you’re on the draw. Downgrading Summoning Trap’s quality is another big deal, alongside with its applicability in some other matches (like Ascension).

As I said, there is no gold standard, and Memoricide has certain disadvantages: it occupies five slots, it doesn’t help if your start is much slower than the opponent’s, and Memoricide doesn’t win the game by itself; you still need something else to win.

Another common sideboarding tech is Mark of Mutiny. Mark allows you to steal opponent’s fatty or give haste to your own Titan in the long game. While needing fewer sideboard slots, Mark of Mutiny also cannot revitalize your slow start, so I think that we should avoid it.  

Gerry uses the third, freshest strategy: a land destruction plan (four Acidic Slime) with two Koths of the Hammer and the new kid on the block – Artisan of Kozilek. Acidic Slime is the only strategy that allows you to slow down your opponent’s Titan for a turn and helps you hit your Primeval Titan first, even if you’re on the draw, so I’d suggest you find the place for no less than two.

Koth provides some versatility, which is also useful against U/B, but I don’t like him because it’s hard to win a mirror with just a single Koth. Artisan of Kozilek is a fifth-and-second Primeval Titan. The fifth because he serves as an additional copy and the second because it’s hard to cast him if you didn’t land another Titan earlier.

All sideboard strategies have their strong and weak sides, so my advice should be “feel free to experiment and find solutions that would be optimal for you.” For my list, mirror-sideboarding would be:

-4 Lightning Bolt
-2 Arc Trail
-1 Raging Ravine
+1 Swamp
+4 Memoricide
+2 Acidic Slime

If you don’t like Memoricide, I’d suggest

-4 Lightning Bolt
-2 Arc Trail
+4 Acidic Slime
+1 Summoning Trap
+1 Artisan of the Kozilek

Joining the dark side

Speaking about our pets, did you notice how often I mentioned Avenger of Zendikar speaking about aggro matchups? Twice compared to fifteen for Primeval Titan. What does it mean? It means that there are no problems with the Avenger – just cast it and win. I played quite a lot from both sides of the table to know that even if you’re Doom Blading Avenger in response to the broccoli-creating trigger, a bunch of 0/1s still gives Valakut time to find gas and win.

Now I’m going to embark upon a small trip to the dark side. Oh, sorry, I forgot. Valakut is the dark side, so instead I’m becoming a warrior of light, and I’ll share an idea about dealing with Avenger of Zendikar. I promised to speak about a bad card that’s surprisingly good – so here it is. I didn’t test this card extensively, but it definitely shows promise.

Chain Reaction. Yes, I offer to play Chain Reaction in aggro decks. Its main feature is the ability to clear the board not only of broccoli, but also of their big vegetable daddy. It even doesn’t matter whether the tokens managed to grow – a fetchland or an Expedition grows the tokens out of Pyroclasm range, but Chain Reaction solves it with a shrug. In an aggro deck, its effect is completely devastating for both sides, but it still gives you a chance to win, especially if you’re playing Goblins and you’re able to cast a bunch of hasty creatures, or if you’re playing Vampires and have a chance to Entomb a Bloodghast or assemble Kalastria-Seer combo.

Interestingly, this card can also find a home in U/G/R Control sideboards, as they have big trouble dealing with a resolved Avenger.

That’s all for today, I’m returning back to the dark side playing Valakut and waiting for Worlds – it’s bound to bring new tech, hopefully new decks, and a brand new Extended format. I expect Valakut to be the most popular Standard deck and respectable Extended contestant (with a little help from Scapeshift, I assume). It’s always hard for “the best deck” to win the Worlds title (Jund and Affinity didn’t do it) because of massive hate, but I have all the confidence to presume that this year will be dominated by the bad boys.   

I wish good luck to everyone attending Worlds, and my special hopes are with the Russian National team. You probably don’t know them (’cause not one of them is Nicolay Potovin), but they’re all talented players and good friends, so I hope you’ll hear these names again. Vladimir Mishustin, Igor Gorbunov, Maxim Zrelov, Alexander Tegay, and Alexey Golovin – good luck!

Feel free to ask everything you want to ask on the forums or via other products of scientific progress.

amarto at MTGO and different forums


on Twitter
Valeriy DOT Shunkov AT gmail DOT com