Sullivan Library – Finding the Finals: Gindy and Ruess’s Hollywood Edge

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Friday, May 30th – With the Standard Pro Tour now in the books, it seems that the approaching Regionals will be informed by those decks strong enough to make Top 8 play. Adrian examines exactly how the two finalists made way to the final table, and shows us how the Elves and Merfolk mages need to develop for the battles ahead.

Making the Top 8 of a Pro Tour is no mean feat. However much some people will sneer at a player’s relative luck, or otherwise attempt to diminish the accomplishment, it still remains that Pro Tours are, at large, a rough meritocracy. This is not to say that the best deck or player will always, or even usually, win. Rather, this is to say that there is something to the deck and player that help them accomplish these feats. If we can understand what it is that makes a finish tick, it can help us accomplish similar feats. Even if we recognize that a deck might be flawed, or even deeply flawed, that does not erase the fundamental power that it had to have to achieve a Pro Tour Top 8. Show me any Constructed Pro Tour, and I will show you eight decks of which you should take note. They often might be made better by some small change or other (as different proponents of various changes will argue), but they are good enough to accomplish what they did, and that is generally markedly better than their alternatives.

From a pure results perspective, we do not merely have a Top 8, but rather a Top 12. While PV’s performance placed him at the same points as places 9 through 12, it was his tie-breaks that brought him, clearly, into Top 8. When we consider this Top 12, we have the following decks:

40 pts

39 pts

37 pts
GR Ramp

36 pts

In many ways, then, we can look at this Top 12 as a tightly packed contest between Green-Black-X aggressive decks, packing a clock and disruption versus the more largely controlling Reveillark, Faeries, and Marijn’s Ramp, with the lone dissenter, Germany’s Ruess playing the only true Aggro-Control deck at the top.

A quick note about this distinction between Ruess’s Merfolk and the various Faerie decks in terms of Strategic Archetype distinction: classically, a deck like Faeries might, at gut level, be considered an aggro-control deck. After all, it seems, at least at first glance, to share a lot of qualities with a deck like Slivers or Madness. In playing the deck, however, I have begun to feel like the deck has far more in common with traditional control decks. On a particular turn, the momentum has swung in the favor of the control deck, and then it takes the aggressive role. Bitterblossom, in many ways, is a kind of crazy combination between Forcefield and Whetweel, usually playing the defensive role early before turning into a true killer. In this way, I actually view the true analogy, historically, for the deck is Patrick Johnson’s Urza’s Block deck Accelerated Blue (or, if you prefer, PatJ.dec), which could power out a Morphling via Grim Monolith and act like an aggro-control deck at times, but while it has that capacity, so do most decks. In general, it would play out like a control deck.

If we look at it like this, the top “eight” (twelve) is broken down into, pointwise:

Aggro decks, roughly 40% of the group
Control decks, roughly 50% of the group
Aggro-control decks, roughly 10% of the group

So, what is it that the two finalist were doing that allowed them to make it through to the top? Matchups matter, but also, so do card choices. Let’s look at the two protagonists of our story:

Charles Gindy — Elves

Charles’s deck is jam-packed with man-lands. In fact, his deck has so many man-lands, that my gut begins to wonder about the correctness of this choice. My own testing, using Owen Turtenwald very potent Elf deck as a base, had slightly more mana (an additional Boreal Elf) and slightly more color, and it seemed substantially valuable. The value in the extra Mutavaults comes into play during end-game alpha-strikes and as a final finisher versus Wrath of God effects. It is also valuable to note that the Mutavault is a great dodge on the commonly-used Teferi’s Moat. Essentially, what this deck is doing is dropping a fast clock, and using Thoughtseize to keep the opponent off their feet while they apply it. Garruk and Profane Command provide the late game finishing if the board isn’t doing it on its own. It is worth noting that Gindy’s deck is designed, more than most, to attack. It doesn’t do something like drop a Wren’s Run Packmaster, which will only provide a slow aggressive advantage. The closest it comes to this is the Garruk, which is there to provide Delayed Blast Overrun when in an aggressive role, and Beastmaker when needing to lean towards control.

Jan Reuss — Merfolk

Jan’s deck is largely the opposite of what seemed to be the common conventional wisdom recommend in discussion of Merfolk during our unofficial Merfolk week, back in late March. “Skip the White,” we mostly said, “It ain’t worth it.”

It appears we were wrong.

While he only ran 2 Sygg in the main, a cursory examination of his Top 8 matches reveal it was pretty huge in many of them Further, fully nine cards in the sideboard are White, and it seems pretty hard to craft the deck with Blue analogs. What is your replacement for Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender?

Jan’s main deck seems to be a deck that recognizes the problem of diminishing returns. A Banneret can certainly be powerful, but after the second, there is essentially no value to the card, unless you are without an Islandwalker and it actually matters. It plays eight four-drops, but again, seemingly recognizes the strain that a Cryptic Command puts on its mana, even as it can provide the kind of Falter-style wins that claimed several matches on his path to second place. In examining his numbers, it strikes me that they were likely very highly playtested, and that they were arrived at with great care.

Jan’s path

Let’s take a quick look at his path to achieve the finals.

In the quarterfinals, Jan is facing Makihito Mihara, piloting Reveillark. This is an interesting matchup. Classically, aggro-control is very good against both control and combo, and Reveillark is arguably standing firmly in both camps. However, Reveillark is a deck that is usually crafted to be able to handle creature decks with ease. With access to Pyroclasm, the deck can respond quickly, and further, the deck runs Pact of Negation, which can often force through the critical spell needed to make the deck either win outright or simply destroy the board such that it is safe.

Jan’s 3-2 victory is easy to chart. In game 2, he dropped quick threats and defended them with countermagic for a fast victory, and in game 3, he overwhelmed a mana-light opponent. In the final decisive game, Jan again had a decisive aggro-control draw, and while it was resisted by Mihara, they were still essentially playing out archetypical roles that strongly favored Jan. Mihara’s wins are notable in that Jan wasn’t really able to get out enough of a start to be able to seize the aggro-control role.

The semifinals is far more interesting. His opponent, Shuhei Nakamura, predicted by Randy Buehler to be the eventual champion of this Top 8, was playing Elves, a largely aggressive deck, which, archetypically speaking, is likely to often have an edge in the matchup. The why of this is interesting: an aggro deck can force an aggro-control deck into a control role, where their controlling spells can often place them in a position where they are simply too slow to respond to threats.

Jan reversed this early. In game 1, he started as the aggressive deck, and when his opponent inevitably turned the tables with his threats, the game was stolen out from under him by the power of Cryptic Command, which essentially shut down not only the ability of Shuhei to get in the damage he needed to win, but also shut off the defenders he needed as well. This scene played itself out in almost the exact same way in the next game as well. In the final, fourth game, Jan essentially made the same basic start, being the aggressive deck, and using the power of Sygg was able to nullify any of the answers that Shuhei might put out at his tiny army. Apparently not drawing enough instants to warrant even casting them, this placed Shuhei in the awful position of having to lay out creature-based answers at sorcery speed, falling right into the problematic role of trying to recover versus an aggro-control deck. Garruk, coming fairly late, seems almost laughable, and unable to grasp the role of aggressor for himself, he did not even force Jan to have a Cryptic Command to take the win.

Charles’s Path

Contrast this path, where the aggro-control deck gets to play out its basic game-plan (a quick threat(s), protected, or an aggressive trump in Cryptic Command), to Charles Gindy approach. For Gindy, the path is to drop aggressive creatures and push in with them.

His quarterfinal opponent, Nico Bohny, represents a good measure of this. They have similar ideas of how they are going to go about their game plan, but Charles’s deck is simply more aggressive. His Wren’s Run Vanquishers are essentially trumps to every creature in Bohny’s deck, and his Imperious Perfect make the largely comparable creatures swing heavily in the other direction. Only four of his lands cause him pain, as compared to Bohny’s 9. Bohny’s reliance on three colors is going to tax either his consistency or his life total, depending on the draw.

If you look at the games, in each it is clear that Bohny is reeling backwards, with Charles relentlessly pushing threats at him, eventually overwhelming him. The third game, he puts up his best fight, dropping a turn 2 Doran, and recovering it later with a Profane Command. This makes a game of it, but, ultimately they both have access to the same weapons in Profane Command, but the big weapons like Chameleon Colossus have an answer on one side of the table (Wren’s Run Vanquisher, if not simply chumps from a Perfect), whereas on the other, there is none. Bohny charged in, getting Gindy to 1, and Gindy’s recovery becomes complete with Primal Command, another card that seems to be a complete trump in this match. Overall, it seemed as though this matchup played out many times would be a question of roles: forced to be a control deck, Bohny would be overwhelmed, whereas Charles would be better equipped to turn the tables into this preferred role.

His semi-final match is an entirely different animal. Yong Han Choo’s deck was largely made to gobble up these decks, as Ted Knutson puts it, “like jellybeans.” In an incredibly close five-game match, Gindy would win, largely based on the parts of the archetype that simply make Green-Black Elves strong: he would drop a clock, disrupt, and push in a kill before the opponent could do much to recover.

In a matchup like this, it seems likely that Charles is a real dog. I’d wager that Yong Han Choo probably is a 70/30 favorite, given the vast array of weapons at his disposal in this matchup. But while 70/30 might make you a favorite, there is a reason it isn’t a 100/0 matchup. Game 4 was decided, largely, by a war of sideboard cards, with Primal Command trumping Teferi’s Moat, in a mostly anemic game played by both players. Game 1 and 5, however, exemplify what a good aggressive deck is capable of in the worst matchup: exploiting a stumble. In both games, the heavily favored Choo double-mulligans, and Charles’s deck performs. This is exactly the reason that you would choose a deck like this, so that when your opponent is vulnerable, your aggressive deck can just put the nails in the coffin.

When Jan and Charles Collide

But, of course, there can be only one.

Again, we have a reprise of the matchup which Jan Reuss won earlier, when he faced Shuhei Nakamura. He won that match largely on the back of Cryptic Command, and the forcing of a role-reversal. As Mike Flores famously posited a decade ago, misassignment of role equals game loss. This would not happen here.

Game 1 is a great example of Charles maintaining his role. He used his creature kill to disrupt his opponent’s table, and maintain the slightly stronger board, and a Thoughtseize to take out the potentially trumping power of Cryptic Command. With Beasts being pumped out, outpacing Reuss, he was forced into the control role, and this was ultimately a race that he could not win; Gindy’s deck was simply more able to play aggressive spells than Jan could handle as a control deck, and a Profane Command ended the game.

Looking at the second game, there is more evidence for this. A Lord of Atlantis is matched by a Wren’s Run. A Sower is answered by a Terror, and followed by a Goyf, making the Elf deck not only the aggressor, but giving it a moment of seeming-aggro-control. A Garruk into evoked Shriekmaw similarly answers the next Sower. What is clear is that Charles aggressive deck is doing what is typical in aggro versus aggro-control matchups, pushing so strongly into the opponent’s deck that they can’t be attacking like they would like, forcing their opponent to play control, and winning the game because they are usually ill-equipped to do so. Even Reuss’s aggressive play with Cryptic Command to attack Charles is, upon further examination, really a control play, designed to dull Gindy’s tempo and take out a dangerous Garruk. Without another trump in Cryptic Command, though, it was not enough.

Game 3 again highlights this problem. While both start slow, a resolved Colossus puts Charles clearly in the aggressor seat. Reuss tries to reclaim ownership of the aggressive role by a double-block that eliminates the Colossus, but a Shriekmaw backed by Slaughter Pact wipes the German of his only real weapon, Sygg. From there, it is back to the same. Charles, as the aggressor, drops threats, and Jan pushes back with answers. Threat-for-threat, Charles had the clear advantage, and without another Sygg or Cryptic Command, Jan couldn’t steal the game back.

In many ways, Jan is the unfortunate recipient of Yong Han Choo’s bad luck in mulliganing. A clear archetypical favorite in that matchup, he instead had to face Charles, and become the underdog instead. His only real way to break up this matchup would be to somehow have access to trump cards that Gindy would have to deal with. One example of a potential trump here might be a card like Teferi’s Moat. This card is still problematic to include, though, because it sets him up to be the control deck in a much more clear way. That might, however, be the way that he would have to go. Largely forced into a control role anyway, the solution might simply be embracing it, and forcing Charles to try to win on the back of Profane Command, Shriekmaw, Mutavault, and, potentially, Primal Command. This would mean that he’d have to worry, however, about simply being Thoughtseized out of the match. It is entirely possible that this matchup approaches hopelessness.

Charles, on the other hand, was fortunate to be sitting down in the finals in the first place. Probably, Reveillark requires perhaps a stronger answer. Primal Command serves as an answer to the Teferi’s Moat likely to be brought in by Reveillark, but does little to dull their potential combo kill. It looks like an exceedingly hard matchup in which to get an edge. Is the answer something akin to a Wheel of Sun and Moon? This somewhat solves the issue of the graveyard, but not entirely, as it is easily retrumped with Venser. Overall, it still looks dire. Probably the answer is something akin to forcing the opponent to have solutions to threats. I imagine a third Shriekmaw and a third Primal Command as potentially key, with perhaps an extra Squall Line to dodge Teferi’s Moat entirely.

Overall, understanding these two decks is going to be hugely important when planning on playing in Regionals in the coming week, especially if you plan on playing one of them. Whether you do or don’t, you can expect that you’ll likely play against someone who is going to be armed with one of these decks, so take note of how they work.

Hopefully, next year, Wizards won’t set up a schedule such that Regionals is going to be so heavily informed by a Pro Tour. I think it does a lot to rob Regionals of its value for innovators and those who would want to try something new.

Good luck to everyone. I know I’ll be checking out all of these Top 8 lists as I figure out whether or not I can try something new or not…

Adrian Sullivan