Sullivan Library – Three Decks For The Post Nationals Qualifier Metagame

Read Adrian Sullivan every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Friday, May 21st – With Grand Prix: Washington D.C. this coming weekend, the hunt is on for the best Standard options available. Adrian Sullivan examines three such options: Mythic, Red, and a fresh take on Jund. Could one of these decks take home the main prize come Sunday? Read on to find out!

It’s been a little while since I wrote anything about Magic. Basically, my life has managed to revolve around writing about media and culture for the last several weeks, and I’m sad that I haven’t been able to share my thoughts on the current format. Unlike a lot of people, I think it’s a pretty spectacular one.

It’s funny when you think about what it means to be prepared for tournament Magic. One of the keys for this is playtesting. For non-Magic players, if they see people playtesting, they often think what’s happening is people are playing a game. “Who’s winning?” they’ll ask.

In a literal sense, they’re right. We are playing a game. But the closest real analogy to what is going on is studying. Playtesting might be fun, but if it is fun, it’s probably only because you really enjoy the topic. Playtesting, like studying, is work. You are grinding out games to do all manner of things: honing the subtle details of a deck and sideboard, figuring out your sideboarding plans, trying to determine the strategic choices that matter for a particular matchup. Depending on your goals, you can be using playtesting as an opportunity for practicing your play skills, or you can focus your effort on a matchup for a deck, or hammering out the details of a deck.

And so, going into the Nationals Qualifier, I was concerned about my lack of playtesting. The last couple of weeks, all I’ve really done is study and write. The Magic I was playing (primarily on MTGO) was both semi-playtesting, and also a break for my brain from the other kinds of thinky things that I’d been doing. It was mostly decks that seemed good, but maybe weren’t quite there; I simply didn’t have the time to dedicate to really working on decks (let alone writing them) without shirking my obligations.

When the time came to play, I know that much of the Madison crew was surprised that I didn’t sling up Red cards. A part of it was a lack of testing the specific cards; even though I’m incredibly comfortable with how I play Red, I didn’t (yet) have Kargan Dragonlords on MTGO, and I hadn’t played a single game with a Standard Red deck packing them; I don’t like feeling clueless about how things should be going. I had a list for Red that I loved, but I loved it in my head. I had no idea how it would play out.

The other decks I had also felt really strong, but at least I had had the opportunity to see how strong they were. One was Brian Kowal’s update to Jund, a simple upgrading of the deck’s power levels into something that just seemed incredible, and that he had playtested to his satisfaction. The other was Randal, an update to the ancient Sol Malka Standard deck that used to run Sedge Troll. I liked the deck a lot, but it didn’t feel like it was doing anything unfair, and against Jund, a coin flip, slightly weighted against you, didn’t seem like a good idea. So, of course, I chose to play Unbeatable TurboFog.

I liked that the deck felt unfair. I liked that the deck had great matchups against top decks. But, it was probably incredibly foolish of me to play a deck that has such great opportunities to mess up built right into it. I completely punted two matches, to slip from undefeated (undefeatable) to out of the running.

Meanwhile, Ben Rasmussen had been spending days with old school Madison Magic players from the Golden Era, basically just prepping for the qualifier. Ben Rasmussen, as a deckbuilder, is basically a grinder. Where people like Brian Kowal are essentially the intuitive and insightful people, and someone like John Treviranus is a creative (if sometimes disciplined) mind, Ben isn’t well known for making decks, though he’s top eighted a lot of events in Constructed, usually with decks he’s made collaboratively with other Madison players, grinding away at a list, and getting input from all of the rest of us. Usually, when Ben plays a deck, you know he’s just put a lot of work into it, grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding; of all of the people who miss Gaudenis Vidugiris in town, Ben is probably number one, if only because Gaudenis could be such a great partner to sit down with for twelve hours and work out the details of a deck.

And so, for me, with my one bona fida playtesting session for Nationals in BRazz’s place, the night before the qualifier, it didn’t take more than a few games watching the deck to know that the deck he had put together was ready for the prime time. Of course, it was a Mythic deck, and so even though I was pretty sure I could put it together, it seemed like it would be an incredibly difficult task.

Among the people playtesting was old-school ringer Bob Allbright, one of those players you’d never know had been to Pro Tour fifteen to twenty times unless you already knew it. He’d come to the BRazz house to playtest and had just bought the entire Superfriends deck, hefty price tag and all. But he’d abandoned ship; BRazz’s Mythic deck was just outperforming it. He switched to Mythic and got together the cards for that crazy super-hefty price tag of a deck.

A small aside to Wizards:

No, tournament players are not asking that Mythics be bad. But, perhaps you could make them cards that aren’t likely to be staples? Iona makes a great Mythic — few decks that want to play Iona would play four. But $50 staples, when a card is in print — that’s a problem. I remember when Tolarian Academy was in Standard at about $20 or so a pop — tons of players simply couldn’t afford to play the Academy deck once all of the cards were assembled, and this included people that were well-connected. After Academy had been in print for a while, it was easier for people to acquire these cards, but the price didn’t really go up.

I know players who spend a lot of time drafting (and doing well) and it is hard for them to put together decks with the Mythics. I’ve been fortunate enough to be incredibly well-connected when it comes to paper Magic, but even so, it can be a struggle. It would be near impossible if I were choosing to play a deck that one or two of my friends were also going to play, unless someone were sponsoring me.

I want Wizards to make money so they can keep making Magic. But I also want to be able to play it. As someone whose chief discretionary expenses are good food, booze, and Magic, if I’m being priced out of the game, something is wrong.


So, here is the deck that Allbright took to a National Qualifier slot

Rasmussen’s build of Mowshowitz’s Mythic is less flashy than the Eldrazi Conscription builds, and instead tries to focus on just getting creatures down and having any individual among them be scary. The curve stops at Baneslayer Angel and Rafiq of the Many, but at the same time, the deck can simply produce a whole lot of mana, and never seems to run out of things to do with it.

One of the big breakthroughs for this particular build was the decision to essentially just try to protect the eggy-weggs; with four Dauntless Escort, two Sejiri Steppe, and two Vines of Vastwood, the plan is to make sure that the relevant creature lives. Against most opponents, if it does, that will usually be enough to take the game. Jace is the only card that isn’t actually dedicated to killing the opponent, but it can be an incredible way to just push your way over the top against an opponent who has to spend their time dealing with your board.

I played against the deck a number of times in playtesting, and I was just deeply impressed by the deck’s general resiliency against opposing decks; if you didn’t respect the damage that it was capable of dealing, suddenly you’d find yourself going from around 20 to dead in a moment. I even thought that Turbo-Fog would be well set up to defeat it, but I would usually just get overrun because of the incredibly quick mana.

This strength ties in, of course, to one of the weaknesses of the deck: creature-based mana. If they can wipe out your early mana, you might not ever get to casting the creatures you need, at least not in a timely enough manner. As a result, Red is a real problem unless the draws from your side or theirs are particularly fortunate for you. Even non-dedicated Red can get in on this action, particularly if they have Cunning Sparkmage.

Linvala, Keeper of Silence is one of the solutions to this problem. A solid creature in its own right, it makes the Cunning Sparkmages laughable, and turns Kargan Dragonlord into a guy that makes you grumble at the money you spent on him. Kor Firewalker and Rhox War Monk also step up to the plate here, essentially trying to ride the lifegain wave out of the range of the Red deck, as well as providing problematic critters that they have to deal with.

Linvala isn’t just great against Red, however. In the mirror, Linvala trumps an opposing Knight of the Reliquary; one-sided Pithing Needles are actually pretty fantastic. While Dauntless Escort isn’t common in the mirror, even the extra possibility that it might nab that as well is just an extra bonus.

Jund and Blue/White decks are both incredibly dependent on the builds. Plated Geopede-based Jund is actually fairly easy to overwhelm, largely because they are expending their card slots to developing their own board rather than playing the control role as they basically need to do if they want to be able to handle this deck. Conversely, heavy removal oriented Jund can be hard to overcome; they don’t really care about a Dauntless Escort, Jace is underwhelming, and every card can be taken out while they continue to develop their table. Rhox War Monk and Mind Control make solid cards for Jund, but only Mind Control wrests any inherent card advantage away from them; if you expect a lot of Jund, it might be worth your while to find more room for Mind Control.

Similarly, Blue/White decks that are concerned about winning against creatures are likely to succeed, particularly if they’ve decided to be good against Mythic. Blue/White decks that are more dedicated to winning against the mirror or other controlling decks (as many are moving towards) can be very difficult. Turning into a (semi) true aggro-control deck, bringing in all of the counters, is a great way to start; for many of these decks, he archetypical advantage that this provides can take things over the top, but it does mean that you are taking out elements of the deck that make the deck what it is.

Ben didn’t qualify; I gave him an early loss, and he managed to find another one, landing himself in the Top 16. Allbright surprised none of us by taking a slot with the deck, and basically claiming, in true Allbright fashion, that if he’d known there was a plaque for first place, he would have stepped it up so that he would have won it. Whether he really would have or not is anyone’s guess; anyone but Bob, who I’m sure would just say it would be a certainty.

I’ve had more than a few people asking about my current Sligh list. I know a lot of people have been taking to calling these decks “Red Deck Wins,” but I just don’t see them as that. Red Deck Wins always used to have some element of a mana control to them, whether it was Rishadan Port or Molten Rain. I’m in the Zvi camp: simply calling it “Red Deck Wins” because it is Red actually gives you less information than saying “Red.” So, here’s my Sligh deck, as it stands with Rise of the Eldrazi:

I’m still hashing out the sideboard, and I’m not 100% on the main, in total.

What I am confident about, though, is an aggressive red deck with 26 “land.” Yes, they really, really are land, sure. But Teetering Peaks and Smoldering Spires both usually come attached with 2 to 4 damage (on average), albeit conditional damage. Smoldering Spires had been so effective in my testing with the previous (pre-RoE) build of this deck that I was struggling with whether or not to put in Goblin Shortcutter once I reformulated the deck around. Bob Baker (of Giantbaiting fame) had independently been working on Red, and he was already on board to use them, and prompted by him, I found a way to include them (cutting 1 Hellspark Elemental and my last 2 Burst Lightnings to make it happen — feel free to put them back in if you are chickensh, err, faint of heart).

The shift away from Balls and Quakes does take a toll in some matchups. The extra damage that you get from unstoppable creatures is more than adequate, usually, but sometimes you’ll absolutely find yourself wishing that you had a Ball Lightning. I’m still contemplating cutting the Hellsparks (no matter how much I do love them), but the hasty, near-unstoppable damage that they provide seems so appealing. Depending on your metagame, I know that reintroducing Burst Lightning, adding Forked Bolt, or putting in Earthquake all seem reasonable.

Sideboard-wise, everything is up in the air. As the metagame plays out, I’m sure I’ll come to some conclusions about what is more or less necessary. I expect Cunning Sparkmage will make the cut, but things might move in a direction where that seems hard to justify. I largely didn’t play this deck because of my uncertainties with boards and also my lack of testing the Shortcutters. I can say, now, that they are effing awesome.

Of course, BK was yammering on and on, as he does, about this great deck he had. Playing against it was another reason I was uncertain about my Red deck, which should traditionally be very reasonable against Jund. BK, however, had clever ideas which seemed to turn the nature of the matchup around…

Now, you can call BK crazy, but Kowal’s ideas are the real deal. Holy crap, Sarkhan the Mad is just insane.

Basically a conventional Jund deck, like most other Jund decks we’ve all talked about and seen a million times, BK takes Sarkhan the Mad and allows the deck to suddenly turn around and provide obscenely fast kills. You’d think that Sarkhan would make 4/4s, he’s so cheap, but, no. He makes 5/5s. This often means a one turn turnaround of 10 damage, and while it doesn’t do it to everything, you can rest assured, Chandra Nalaar is jealous.

That’s all for this week.

I expect to see more of you over the summer now that I’m done writing 112 pages of work. And I expect I’ll be slinging more cards.

Good luck to everyone in D.C. Wish I could join you!

Adrian Sullivan