It’s that gnawing sensation in your gut, telling you something . . . something is wrong. Lying in bed, the clock reads 3 AM. Can’t sleep. Can’t stop thinking. Can’t stop thinking about not being able to sleep.
I told you. I told you all last week to sell your soul. I told you to play the best deck regardless of whether or not you hate it. I told you to do something that even I didn’t want to do. If I couldn’t convince myself, then how could I have convinced any of you? But did I even make a dent in your tough exterior? Did you brush off the advice the same way I brush off the advice of those around me? Or did you take what I said to heart and make it gospel?
Preach the word.
Even so, I’m still lying here. Still unable to sleep, and still thinking that I’m running headfirst into a situation that I never wanted to put myself in. Trapped in a device of my own making; it’s already way too late to make a difference. But I’m still here, and I’m stilling thinking. Always thinking.
The brews. The ideas are running through my head at 3 AM, and I can’t get them out. My eyes quiver as I try to focus on a particular spot on the ceiling. What made that stain? It was probably some leaky pipe from the room above me, but the management was too lazy to change it. I don’t blame them. Everyone likes to be lazy.
Everyone likes to give in.
After all, what was the big deal? I had given in too. I had sleeved up a Jund deck, in all its insignificance, and was going to play it joylessly in the Standard Open in the morning. Casting Farseek into mythic rares with the best of them. Playing a deck that stands for everything that is wrong with Standard. Playing a deck that isn’t a deck at all. Just a collection of cards.
Just a mistake.
Baltimore. Home of a Grand Prix next weekend apparently. And not one of those Magic ones, but the original fast-paced action-packed ones where the drivers speed around a city like some James Bond flick. I half-wished I was just in town for that because anything would be more fun than casting Farseek into Huntmaster of the Fells into Thragtusk into Rakdos’s Return into . . .
I rushed to the bathroom to vomit.
But that’s Baltimore, in all its dirty glory, full of some of my worst and best memories from playing Magic. Without the constant trips to Baltimore, I might never be reminded of how lucky I am to live somewhere else.
But I am here now, wiping the grit from my lips, lying quietly in bed, ears ringing, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from screaming. How could they have done this to me? How could I have been so thoroughly browbeaten by a card game into playing a deck that I despise? In what universe was it all right for me to give up all of my ideals and . . . and . . .
Oh my God.
I even wrote about it last week. I practically screamed it from the pages. JUST PLAY JUND. Just do it and stop being an idiot. Those were my words. But why did they feel so sour in my mouth . . . or was that just the taste of the Subway sandwich sitting in the toilet?
If I don’t play Jund now, then I’m just a phony. I’m a sellout. I misled you and played something that "beat Jund" instead. If I just back out now, I’ll look like a moron. I’ll look like a fool. I’m a coward.
Or a genius.
But how can this be right? How can I be lying in bed, awake at 3 AM in Baltimore, and dreading what would happen the following morning? I was going to show up, register the same 75 as William Jensen from a few weeks before, and probably win. Because . . . you know . . . justice.
As I sat there, I wondered something as Bard Narson continued his relentless attack on my eardrums with his snoring.
I wondered if I would actually feel good about winning the tournament. I had given in, after all, and taken my own advice. Just play Jund. Just forget about trying to brew something wonderful, something inspiring. Just win with this monotonous tragedy. But would I feel like I’d accomplished something? Would I feel like I’d proven my point and I was right all along? The contemplation of this concept was nagging, and the only answer I could come up with was "no." No, winning with this abomination would give me no sense of joy. No sense of accomplishment. Just hollow. Fickle.
So I panicked.
Well, if that’s the case, then what in the hell am I doing? Why did I even come on this trip in the first place? Magic is supposed to be fun, right? I should just play whatever I want and leave everything else up to chance, right? What am I doing? What could I . . .
Warm bed. Temperature rising. Covers too thick. Sweat seeps. Fever dream.
And I got out of bed. I walked to the lobby, backpack and collection in tow. The alarm clock read 3:25 AM as I left the room, and the others were sleeping soundly. Sweet dreams. No nagging. No tossing and turning. Not a care in the world.
And the Jund deck turned to ashes in my hands.
By 4 AM I had a list of cards that I was missing to build the deck that I wanted to play and all the cards I owned for the deck tucked neatly into a deckbox. I was as ready as I could be for the moment, but I would have to get a little lucky in the morning to find someone to borrow cards from. I wasn’t going to play Jund. I just couldn’t. I was going to play a deck that I would feel good about playing. A deck, in fact, that had kicked the crap out of me in the ten or so playtesting games I’d played with GerryT earlier that night before I went to bed. It looked a little something like this:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 4 Thragtusk
- 1 Disciple of Bolas
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 2 Angel of Serenity
- 2 Shadowborn Demon
For me, it was a breath of fresh air, to say the least. When we were playing games, Gerry’s deck did some of the most outstanding things I’d seen from a Standard deck in quite some time (while I know that Gerry didn’t "build this deck himself," this was the version he was piloting). There were so many ups and downs, and I honestly never felt like I had a stranglehold on any game. One bad draw step or one good draw from Gerry and everything fell apart. He had answers to virtually any creature I played and killed Scavenging Ooze or Olivia Voldaren almost instantaneously.
The cards that had once been dominant in the matchup now rarely mattered. Or, rather, they mattered less because Gerry’s deck could answer them fairly easily. Older versions of the archetype focused more on Restoration Angel alongside Acidic Slime, Sin Collector, or Fiend Hunter. This one was more proactive against the bigger threats to the deck, giving you a way out instead of just folding to some of the tougher creatures.
There was a game we played where I put Gerry to one life from a Rakdos’s Return with no cards in hand and no creatures in play. On the next turn, he was at eleven life with five cards in hand. To make things easy, let’s just say he drew a Thragtusk. He also discarded an Unburial Rites to the Rakdos’s Return and just so happened to have Disciple of Bolas in the graveyard.
I did not win this game.
And after that, I knew the deck could win through basically anything given the right draw. It wasn’t necessarily the best deck I’d ever seen and could certainly be improved in some places. The sideboard wasn’t completely built yet either, but we had the whole morning to figure things out. Awkwardly for me, Gerry was asleep back in the room, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the deck, so I just sat there thinking about the deck for a little while and eventually headed for bed.
My head now clear, my heart stopped racing. My ears weren’t so hot, and that sinking feeling began to fade. No more sweat. No more thinking.
And I slept like a baby.
After a paltry three and a half hours of sleep, the alarm screamed "get up, get going, find the cards you need so you don’t have to play Jund!" It got my mind working again. A quick shower and we were out the door, headed to get some Red Bull and whatever breakfast I could stomach. We got to the event site, and I talked to Richard "Panda" Nguyen. By some fortunate turning of fate, he ended up having every single card I needed for the deck. It was . . . serendipity? I don’t know. But after I consulted with Gerry about the list some more, I made some changes and built a sideboard. My fingers were shaking as I wrote out the decklist for the tournament. I was nervous, for the first time in a long time, about what would happen in this tournament.
And I wish I could give you a story about an inspirational win, where I took the tournament by storm and played the deck perfectly. That the cards came in just the right order every round, and I hit the Angel of Serenity right on time exactly when it mattered.
But that isn’t what happened. In a cruel twist of the knife into my ever-so-shaky mental state, I ended up starting 4-0 and then losing to Jund.
I almost couldn’t take it. I checked the drop box on the match slip and proceeded to take a walk. After all, I had plenty of time to kill. The match had only taken fifteen or so minutes, as I was so thoroughly handled by Bonfire of the Damned and my inability to draw the right colors of mana. Maybe I should have mulliganed to five. Maybe I should have sequenced my lands differently. Maybe I shouldn’t have cut Garruk Relentless at the last minute.
Maybe I should have just played Jund.
And, even now, that sinking feeling is back again, and I can’t help but think "what if?" What if I’d just played Jund, listened to my own advice, and actually given it a shot? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe Jund and I could become friends and ultimately end up having a great relationship together. Maybe we could help each other grow into better people and become each other’s reason for living. Maybe I could even learn to love Jund. Just maybe. Eventually.
Sympathy for the Devil.
At this moment, I have no idea what I’m doing. In Standard. In Magic. In life. Somehow, those things all intertwine at this juncture. Magic is my job, day in and day out. Searching the Internet for decklists, bringing all the latest and greatest hits from around the world for your eyes to see. Compiling them with a little bit of entertainment and information, all wrapped up nicely with a neat little bow on top.
But I just don’t know anymore.
Standard is beyond me. It is out of my range. Too big. Too powerful. Too many variables for me to brew and actually be successful. When I find a good deck, it has a severe weakness. Bant Hexproof, Jund, G/R Aggro, Junk Reanimator, U/W/R Flash, Junk Aristocrats. All of these decks do outlandishly different things, and it seems almost impossible to build a different archetype that can successfully stand up to any of these monsters.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything else. That isn’t to say that this particular deck doesn’t exist. In fact, that particular deck might just be a different iteration of something listed above. If that’s the case, then so be it. But I can’t find it, and I’m honestly tired of looking.
One of my biggest hurdles has been coming up with ways to counter the fact that Jund has multiple cards in their deck that invalidate entire strategies. Obliterates them, even. But there are nut draws from decks that are just unbeatable. You stumble, just once, and you’re dead. You miss a land drop or brick on a draw step to find a removal spell, and the game is over. There are so many powerful things going on that every deck can just kill the opponent before any interaction is had. Every game is decided by the contents of your top fifteen cards.
And I don’t feel like coin flipping thirteen matches in a row to win a tournament.
Before the release of M14, I would say that the best deck in the format was Junk Aristocrats. Brad Nelson really hit the nail on the head, and his word was law. I played what he told me to play, and it was working. It was the first time in a long time where I felt like I was playing the best deck in the format and had access to a deck where my decisions mattered. I made Top 8 of two Magic Online PTQs in a row, which I hadn’t done in quite some time, and my losses in the Top 8s were due to a nut draw from Junk Reanimator and a bug in the program. But the deck was by no means "too good." It was pretty bad against Bonfire of the Damned, as well as Sphinx’s Revelation, but you could build your deck and sideboard to compensate for those cards.
But Scavenging Ooze . . . man. I can’t remember the last time there was a card that good in Standard yet so utterly brushed off. It singlehandedly made Junk Aristocrats unplayable because it made Lingering Souls so much worse. You need every single resource in Junk Aristocrats to function in order to have a chance against, well, basically any deck, but it is much more important against Jund because their deck is designed to kill everything. The whole point is that your cards all interact with each other on so many levels that the opponent can’t keep up. Take away one minor piece of functionality and it falls to pieces. With Scavenging Ooze, Jund is no longer on an even playing field, but that isn’t the whole reason why Junk Aristocrats is bad.
Before the release of M14, I considered aggressive decks to be byes for Junk Aristocrats. They could kill you, sure, with a solid combination of cards, but you had a significant advantage. You could overpower many of their removal-less draws, and Voice of Resurgence paired with Cartel Aristocrat was the ninth level of Hell. That is until the aggro decks got bigger.
Brian Kibler took Standard by storm with his G/R Aggro deck at the World Championship. Burning Earth was the breakout card in the following weeks, giving you a powerful way to punish both Jund and control decks. While Burning Earth isn’t always good against the more proactive draws from Jund, it is still decent. But the biggest hit to Junk Aristocrats from the deck was the increase in popularity of Thundermaw Hellkite.
Yet another card that makes Lingering Souls worse, Thundermaw Hellkite was an absolute beating. It was beatable, like most cards, but you needed to draw Tragic Slip. If you didn’t, you were likely just dead on arrival. With Lingering Souls getting worse, it made the entire deck worse, and there was no longer a natural foil to aggressive decks.
And I almost couldn’t take it. I had been working on and playing Junk Aristocrat for months, and it was suddenly obsolete. And why? Because of Scavenging Ooze and Thundermaw Hellkite? I couldn’t believe it, and I tried to play it anyway and continuously failed. I probably burned a hundred or so tickets on Magic Online in tournaments trying to make the deck playable, trying anything and everything, but nothing worked. I couldn’t rely on synergy anymore. I just had to build a deck that could nut draw the opponent and hope for the best.
So what’s the point? Should I just play Jund and cross my fingers to miracle Bonfire of the Damned on the perfect turns, or should I play G/R Aggro and hope that my opponent doesn’t have a better draw than me in the mirror? Should I play control and get obliterated by Burning Earth, or should I play Junk Reanimator and lose to Scavenging Ooze?
The options are limitless, but the appetizing choices are non-existent.
I think I need a little bit of a break. From the grind. From the constant traveling. From beating my head against a wall, because I don’t know how much more I can handle. I will be taking this coming weekend off of Magic for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I want to just stay home and spend some time with my wife. It also happens to be opening weekend for college football, and I will be heading to the nearest Buffalo Wild Wings wearing my Bama shirt and yelling at Virginia Tech fans. It will be glorious, and I will love every second of it.
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