Sullivan Library – Getting the Most Out of the Philly $5K

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Thursday, October 15th – With the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia now in the books, Adrian Sullivan examines the results and decklists in order to gain an advantage for Standard play. He investigates the Jund phenomenon, and updates a successful fringe deck with Zendikar cards.

For many of the $5K events that have happened, I’ve taken upon myself the task of going through the plethora of decklists from the event, cataloging them, and analyzing them. Typically there is a lot that you can discover about a metagame when you go through such a huge collection of decklists.

Magic, as I’ve said before, is a game whose tournament life can really be profitably examined from an ecological perspective. There really are a finite number of wins in any given tournament. In a single match, there is (at most) 3 match points up for grabs. A 64 person tournament has, at most, 96 such points in a given round. It doesn’t matter what the various goals are of every participant; they won’t be the same, necessarily. When I go to a tournament, my overarching goal is to win it. On the other hand, it is possible that I can go into a tournament and know that if I’m not fully prepared, a might have a smaller goal (and more reasonable goal, in this case) of trying to learn enough about the deck(s) I’m considering to have my next tournament be the one I’m aggressively aiming to win. Someone else might be playing in the same event with the goal of placing higher than 50/50. Another player might be trying to have fun. Another player might be looking to “make money” or get X number of Pro Points. It doesn’t matter that we all have different goals. Tournament players at these events come in all shapes and sizes, and the bigger the event, typically the more accurate a snapshot we get off how a certain tournament format plays out. Going to nearly any event, you’ll see that there are a certain number of players who look at the event in one way, and a certain number that look at it another way. The bigger the event, the more accurately we can model a format, with all of its complexities.

A lot of things get said about formats, most of which are patently false. If you look at the Standard format towards the beginning of this year in March (pre-M10/Alara Reborn, post-Conflux) people claimed that Boat Brew was dead. They claimed that Faeries was the deck to play. Even after the event, they would claim that Five-Color Control (which had two competitors in the Top 8) was a great archetype, as a whole. But, if you looked at the data, it was actually very clear that there was a different story. Faeries, as an archetype, performed, quite literally, at the average level of performance. That is to say that if you decided you were going to play in the event period you would have the same average success choosing to play Faeries as simply entering the tournament and being handed a random deck from any competitor in the room. That’s not exciting. Conversely, if you were playing Boat Brew, you’d have the best results, on average, of any deck that was widely played at the event. Five-Color Control, interestingly, was among the very worst performing decks, overall, but it also had (along with B/W Tokens) the best representation in the Top 8. I would claim that this is probably because there are a billion ways to build Reflecting Pool-based Five-Color Control, and if you build it incorrectly, you’re going to be destroyed.

Fast forward to my analysis of the Minnesota $5k, where we are firmly in the post-Alara Reborn (pre-M10) Standard. Given the full picture, you see a Standard that is so crazily diverse that it almost staggers the imagination. If you counted the full metagame, the top-represented archetype was Jund Cascade, capturing a “huge” 12% of the metagame. If you only counted the “Winner’s Metagame” (the people who were at the top of the field, i.e., The Decks to Beat), you’d see that Faeries held 15% of that metagame, with Jund Cascade, B/W Tokens, and Reveillark falling in behind it, at 13%, 13%, and 8% of the metagame, respectively. It took the top four archetypes to even represent not quite half of the winning field. That’s just insane.

Knowing about this helps a lot. If you live in a metagame this diverse, for example, choosing dedicated, targeted answers for a particular deck begins to make a lot less sense. If Wispmare, for example, is a card you’ve determined you really want against Faeries, but is nearly dead against most other decks you’re expecting to see, in a field like this, it really doesn’t make much sense to play the Wispmare. If you are playing in Lorwyn Block, though, where the “Winner’s Metagame” might be closer to 60% Faeries, it begins to look like a choice that is almost certainly correct.

Getting that kind of data, though, is often quite rare. Often, I’ll look through decklist counts and see meaningless distinctions between decks (“Five-Color Control” and “Five-Color Obelisk,” or others, spring to mind) which reduce the clarity in what is happening in an event. The most common situation is that we get the lists of a Top 8 or a Top 16, as we did in the recent $5k in Philadelphia. In these situations, we still get a plethora of information that we can use to figure out how we should be building our decks.

Let’s take the example of Jund Aggro, which placed a whopping 5 decks into the Top 8 of that event (1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th) as another deck in 14th place. This is quite impressive. One interesting thing about these lists is just how homogenous they all are. Here are the cards used, as well as the card counts for each deck in the Top 8:

Bloodbraid Elf: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
Broodmate Dragon: 3/3/2/3/3 Ave: 2.8
Putrid Leech: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
Sprouting Thrinax: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
Great Sable Stag: 0/0/4/0/1 Ave: 1

Bituminous Blast: 3/3/3/3/3 Ave: 3
Lightning Bolt: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
Resounding Thunder: 2/0/3/0/3 Ave: 1.6
Terminate: 2/3/0/4/0 Ave 1.8
Garruk Wildspeaker: 2/3/0/3/2 Ave: 2
Blightning: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
Maelstrom Pulse: 3/4/3/3/3 Ave: 3.2

Forest: 4/4/4/4/3 Ave: 3.8
Mountain: 2/2/2/2/4 Ave 2.4
Swamp: 4/3/4/4/3 Ave: 3.6
Dragonskull Summit: 3/4/3/3/3 Ave: 3.2
Rootbound Crag: 4/3/4/4/4 Ave: 3.8
Savage Lands: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
Verdant Catacombs: 4/4/4/4/4 Ave: 4
(Total Land): 25/24/25/25/25 Ave: 24.8

One of the things that is somewhat shocking is that if you take an average of these Top 8 lists you arrive nearly exactly at Champion Jack Wang’s list! In fact, if you go through my process of amalgamating the decklists, you arrive exactly at Jack Wang’s list.

This isn’t something to sneeze at. Coming out on the top of a field of 318 people is impressive. Everyone in the Top 8 of the event certainly accomplished something. This isn’t the same thing as getting four lists in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour (like Team ABU did in Tokyo), but its still quite impressive. Where those lists diverged a lot, it becomes well worth it to amalgamate the decklists when you’re trying to figure out how your decklist performs against “Jund,” for example. In the case of post-Pro Tour Tokyo, rather than testing against all four Red/Green Invasion Block lists, you’d get a lot more for your time by either testing against Phil Freneau’s list, or the amalgamated version of the lists (which was Phil Freneau’s, but with a Keldon Necropolis exchanged for a Forest).

As Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa points out, there still has to be a lot of room for improvement on all of the lists, in general. Sideboarding, in particular, is probably a rough proposition. Let’s check out the Jund sideboards, on average:

Jund Charm: 3.8
Anathemancer: 2.8
Great Sable Stag: 2.2
Thought Hemorrhage: 1.8
Duress: 1.4
Terminate: 1.0
Goblin Ruinblaster: 0.8
Bituminous Blast: 0.4
Deathmark: 0.4
Pyroclasm: 0.2
Maelstrom Pulse: 0.2

There are several things of interest here.

First, every deck that wasn’t already playing Terminates boarded them. This speaks a lot to the likely needs of this archetype to simply have answers to dangerous creatures that might otherwise be hard to get rid of. Baneslayer Angel comes to mind, but there are probably others.

Second, nearly every deck boarded Thought Hemorrhage. Like Terminate, Thought Hemorrhage is just a general answer to a problem. Say your deck happens to run into some heretofore unknown combo deck. Hemorrhage will answer it. Say you don’t want a Cruel Ultimatum to happen, like, ever. Hemorrhage deals with that concern.

Nearly everyone (except the eventual winner) had access to 4 Great Sable Stag and 3-4 Anathemancer. Clearly, the Stag is a great card against Vampires, but that doesn’t even appear to be a concern to the winner, who instead relied upon expectations that the sheer power of Bloodbraid, Bituminous Blast, and pals could overcome the little fanged menace. Similarly, instead of using Anathemancer as a means of punishing decks like Five-Color Control, he appears to have relied on Goblin Ruinblaster to do the work (made better, in part, by its interaction with Cascade). Some people have called his Ruinblasters “too weak”, but I think that they can really play into the strengths of a deck like this, building on a beatdown that you already have going, and furthering your dominance of the board. While everyone else seemed to prefer Anathemancer, I think that without Cryptic Command in the format, simply knocking an opponent down a land is likely to cause a lot more damage against the slower, controlling decks than dropping down Anathemancer, particularly as most control decks seem to be sporting more basics now. Jund Charm in large numbers was another point of agreement. Wang liked it so much, he played a “5th” one in the form of Pyroclasm.

With all of these points of agreement, we can craft a kind of pseudo-“amalgamated” sideboard, conceived more out of analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of a portion of their decks that is more likely to be rough cut than their main, rather than driving our amalgamation out of true averages. This isn’t the same thing as amalgamation, by far. Instead, it is just the case of me making judgment calls. Here it is:

4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Jund Charm
2-3 Thought Hemorrhage
4 Duress
0-1 Other critter kill or miscellaneous card

If you think about the way that some people might choose to lean on Great Sable Stag for the mirror (only easily killed by Lightning Bolt, though Bloodbraid Elf profitably trades with it), you might want to go off of the path that any of these players did, and add an extra spot for a Resounding Thunder in the board. This seems like a waste of time to me, though. Eight cards seems like enough to fight that card, particularly since you can often just fight right into it if you’re ahead.

I’d probably end up with something very close to Wang’s list:

4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Jund Charm
3 Thought Hemorrhage
4 Duress

Here, I’m trusting each of these very versatile cards to simply do the job against problematic cards. Slower decks that run, say, Baneslayer Angel might require more effort to kill, but at the same time, it is a card that you have five outright answers to in the main, and that you can kill with extra effort if need be, not to mention a card that you could potentially race. That seems fine. Thought Hemorrhage can always be brought in against most of those decks, because if you really fear it, you could certainly just Hemorrhage them all away, with a little luck, and if there is another card that they might also run (say, Martial Coup), it will work there as well.

Compare these lists to Richard Nguyen’s list, which fell a little bit short, but still performed well. It could be that he got a little more unlucky (or less lucky, depending on how you look at the glass), or it could be that there is something substantive going on.

Nguyen foregoes Garruk entirely and runs a smidge less elimination and Dragons in favor of Great Sable Stags. This doesn’t seem like much of a change until you think about the amount of late game cards that are being cut (all off them, in essence) to make room for the Stags. His sideboard, though, is where I think most of the damage came.

There is a lot of creature removal in here, but all of the point-and-click variety. Only two Jund Charms is a big deal. Only two truly anti-control cards. Overall, it looks like there is just a lot of wasted space in the board. I think he clearly wanted to beat something (perhaps the mirror?), and gave it too much space in his board.

There is generally a danger here in that. When you dedicate a great deal of space to your board for the purpose of beating a particular deck, by the time you board a lot of it in, you often cease to act as the same kind of deck. Historically, this often fails, simply because the power that made you be the kind of deck you wanted to be is taken out. It isn’t conclusive, but there is at least some evidence that Nguyen’s slightly less successful performance could be viewed as coming from those two mistakes.

Of course, the other deck that got a fair amount of copies into the Top 16 are the Vampire decks. They had a lot of help from the strong push that they were given in Zendikar and M10, so it isn’t surprising that this happened. My good friend (and former Madisonian) Ted Renner pulled in his first larger event Top 8 (and his second money finish in a SCG $5k), riding their fangs.

His list was the most interesting to me for a number of reasons. It ran a singleton Eldrazi Monument, which really seems to act like a 5th Vampire Nocturnus. It ran a full complement of fetchlands, further helping out the Nocturnus, but also fully empowering the Bloodghast.

Looking at the list, like a lot of people, I wanted to find room for the 4th Malakir Bloodwitch. This is a packed list, though. At first I thought that maybe Vampire Nighthawk could go, but it really is a good card against Jund, a matchup that you clearly want some help with.

The sideboard really shows just how packed Ted’s list is. It includes Malakir Bloodwitch, Vampire Hexmage, Disfigure, and Mind Sludge. Each of these card choices moves the deck into potential four-ofs against the right deck. After slinging the deck together, I think it might simply be a deck that you want to be running at the counts Ted has in his main, and board into the appropriate four-of against the right deck. Alternately, I might cut down on one of the “good” cards to make room for the 4th Bloodwitch, which just seems like a great card to run right now. After playing the Monument, I actually can’t conceive of cutting it — it’s just too much like another Nocturnus, and you really want more of those cards, though running a second Monument would be tied to too much cost.

Some people have criticized the 4 Sign in Blood in the list, but I don’t quite understand they’re thinking. One of the real strengths of this deck over the builds that are running Vampire Lacerator is that they it is far more capable of fighting a long-game. Giving up just a smidge of early beatdown in favor of having seven first-strikers (granting you a kind of pseudo-“damage on the stack” power) can be quite meaningful as you’re fighting a creature fight. Sign in Blood furthers the ability of the deck to fight these games. Vampires, as Ted’s is built, is not a pure Aggro deck. It is definitely leaning towards Midrange-Aggro. Even those lists that are more aggressive are probably likely to want to be able to fight against Cascade’s ability to out card-advantage them. Sign in Blood is a great way to do it. All of the versions of this deck are really packing a lot of creatures, and losing a slot, for example, is not painful if it means you get to run the fourth copy of your “refill.”

Giaquinto (at 9th) and Gosse (at 11th) both were running Lacerator builds, clearly interested in trying to end the game more quickly. They accomplished this by running less land, and either cutting the Hexmage or the Mind Sludge. Cutting the Hexmage might be reasonable, but cutting Sludge just seems crazy to me. Even at only two copies, it’s incredible how often you can have your opponent wheeling back, and just rip away their whole plan. It’s almost incredible to me that Giaquinto chose to play zero, but then went to a heavily discard-based strategy after board, with 3 Sludge and 2 Vess backed up by 3 Duress.

The interesting thing about all of these decks is the way it almost seems like they were pre-built. The only real cards that separate these lists are:

Eldrazi Monument
Vampire Hexmage
Vampire Lacerator
Mind Sludge
Gargoyle Castle

When you look at the numbers of differences here, too, it really is quite small (1/3/4/2/2) for most of them. Only Lacerator is real point of contention. I can understand the desire for some people to play them. They really are great on the curve, but I do find myself wondering if they are worth the effort. Gargoyle Castle seems like a crazy decision in a deck that often wants BBB or is casting Tendrils of Corruption. Mind Sludge seems like a no-brainer to me, but at a certain point, you do have to cut something.

Really, what we can learn from these two lists is that there really are two slightly different approaches that can be taken. You can attempt to lean towards a more dedicated aggressive strategy, with Vampire Lacerator in the deck, and eschewing Mind Sludge, or you can lean towards a more aggressive Midrange-Aggro build, slowing down just slightly. These distinctions are so small as to be nearly unnoticeable, but if there really are strengths in both builds, one can just actively claim one of them without much effort. Your core is likely to be the same in all of the builds:

4 Bloodghast
4 Gatekeeper of Malakir
3-4 Vampire Nighthawk
4 Vampire Nocturnus
3-4 Malakir Bloodwitch
2-4 Disfigure
4 Tendrils of Corruption
4 Sign in Blood

15-16 Swamp
7-8 Fetchlands

That’s 50-56 cards done. When it comes to wiggling in the rest after that, you really aren’t giving yourself much room after the auto-includes. This deck, though, is likely to stick around unless something shows up in the next set that just crushes it out of existence. I don’t expect that to be too likely.

Boros Bushwhacker actually looks like it might just be the first truly new deck to come out of this format. It’s still a Gun deck variant, like Boros Deck Wins before it, so it isn’t earth-shattering, but it does look like it has a lot going for it, really aggressively making use of Zendikar’s “land matters” theme.

Of the top lists, I haven’t played this one yet, but I’ve talked to people who have played against it, and they all agree that it is an incredibly fast deck, and consistent as well. Ranger of Eos seems truly fantastic with the Bushwhackers and Guides. A completely clear board, with proper mana, can turn into 10 damage just from the Ranger. That really is ridiculous.

I’m not 100% sure I know why the Magma Spray are there. Certainly they can take care of Bloodghasts, but I remain unsure if that’s what this deck needs to do in that matchup. It could well be that they are critical, but with the more versatile Celestial Purge there, I’m pretty sure that they might be extraneous. Still, there is a lot to be excited about with Calcano’s list.

I’m still processing Zach Barker’s Blitz list (Red Deck Wins? Please…). I think it’s probably that a small amount of the numbers are wrong. I’m all for ones and threes, but only when appropriate. I’m not sure what Obsidian Fireheart is doing as a one — it looks like a pure non-one, and is probably correctly counted at literally any other count than one. Resounding Thunder might be a 9th targeted burn spell for the deck, but I’m wondering why Thunder over some other choice (there are many to go to). Overall, though, I think the deck looks completely reasonable. While a Hellspark Elemental might be a “bad” Nacatl, it also is really capable of putting out the damage immediately. For people that weren’t playing when Ball Lightning was in print, they don’t realize just how big of a deal it can be to be able to just shrug and chop off about a third of someone’s life total. It doesn’t take many cards that are doing just that before you’re looking at an opponent who is in a really hard place. Even if Goblin Guide is “bad,” the game often might not last long enough for the drawback to matter.

The board looks like it could perhaps use a few more Chandra Nalaar, and I remain unconvinced of Unstable Footing unless you’re really, really, really afraid of Safe Passage for some reason. I am not sure about the sheer number of Threatens in the sideboard, either. This deck doesn’t look like it usually has much of a board presence (the way that that card type often performs best), so it seems a little rough, but still worth considering in smaller numbers.

The two “Naya Lotus Angel” lists beg the question of just how much this archetype was being played. Were there only a few of them, or was it widely seeing play? If the room was packed with this style of deck, it would seem to be an indictment that, at least at this rough stage, the deck is underwhelming. If there really weren’t many it is more of an indication that there is something to be chased here, some kind of powerful archetype that just needs to be refined. The jury is still out there. Worth noting is the use of Ranger of Eos to fetch Scute Mob in both cases, and 2 Goblin Guide in another. Ranger into Goblin Guide is a really legitimate way to get use out of the Guide without fully committing to the drawback that is inherent to the card. Rob Theiringer’s list is particularly interesting, notching a little higher on the curve, exploiting the Knight of the Reliquary, which can be particularly explosive with the Lotus Cobra (turn 2 Lotus Cobra, turn 3 Knight, say without any helpful fetchlands, and turn 4, dropping the fourth land, changing one into a fetchland, and creating eight mana). Pay attention to this interaction for upcoming Standard!

For me, though, the biggest reminder I had for my own decks were the two Luminarch Ascension decks. I’d forgotten that the card could be an easy fit into a deck that was just planning on destroying the world again and again. Take the following deck that some of you may remember…

How much better does Luminarch Ascension look in The Spanish Inquisition than Goblin Assault? Quickly, the following deck can emerge:

Obviously, it’s not a perfect list, by any means, but it does seem like a completely reasonable port in of a deck that really did prove itself quite recently. Luminarch Ascension does much of the same work that Goblin Assault did, in providing a finisher, but also can supply a good defensive value that the other card cannot.

With just a smidge of inspiration from the new lists, you can easily re-arm your own projects or revisit proven lists. Standard is still largely wide open. I’m confident that Cruel Ultimatum is a real card in Standard, just waiting to find the right deck. I’m also willing to bet that some of the Pro Tour: Honolulu decks (particularly Naya-Jund Cascade) are just waiting to be ported over into Standard as well.

When new top lists from larger events are publicized, there may not be full analysis of the field, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that can be gleaned from them. Trends of the really popular decks can be tracked. Forks in the path between how a deck archetype can be built show up. Truly innovative new decks can be contemplated and put into your new gauntlet as a Deck to Beat. Even small bits of inspiration can be applied to other decks, old and new.

Magic is constantly changing. The shifts in Magic ecology come because stronger and stronger decks evolve to prey upon the decks that are a step or two behind. Sometimes people forget that an archetype is legitimate, and in ignoring it, suddenly find themselves prey to it. At other times, an overabundance of an archetype makes a marginal deck like Turbo-Fog suddenly rise to the top. Consuming as many lists as you can is a vital part of continuing to succeed in the game. Magic doesn’t much care for your decision to live in the past. Plenty of other people will do the work necessary to gobble up those precious wins, and there are only so many of them.

Until next week…

Adrian Sullivan