This weekend I played in one of the last few remaining qualifiers of this Standard season. As it was located just outside of Boston, I expected a large turnout with plenty of very skilled Magic players, and I was not disappointed. While I don’t have an exact player count, I recall one of the judges saying that there were close to 200 players. I also recognized the names and faces of many of the PTQ ringers. The air conditioning was out, and it was very hotâ€”close to 100 degrees I heardâ€”which added another obstacle to the competition.
In preparing for the tournament, the decks I considered were: UW Control, Tempered Steel, and Valakut. Other decks that I thought would be popular but that I wasn’t necessarily on board with were: Red Deck Wins, RB Vampires, UB Control, and Splinter Twin. I expected a fairly low number of people to show up playing UB Tezzeret, Eldrazi Green, or something like that. After the StarCityGames.com Open and Japanese Nationals, I figured that a lot of people would also play the new version of Caw-Blade and that Valakut players would be on the rise.
After trying some home brews and playing with a few stock lists, I wasn’t convinced that any deck other than Splinter Twin could reliably beat the powerful draws of Valakut. I didn’t like Splinter Twin because it relies on a creature as part of its combo when every deck plays creature kill, and it doesn’t play much of a game without its combo. I generally don’t like to play a deck that relies more on the cards to win a game than the skill of the player.
I actually thought that Valakut was a deck like this until I played it a bit more. The truth of the matter is that many decks take more skill to pilot than Valakut, but it’s not like your win percentage suddenly drops by 20% because you don’t play a turn 1 Goblin Guide!
A last factor to consider was that I needed to play a deck that wouldn’t grind out all the matches to time. I love playing control, but Boston is a three-hour drive for me each way, and I knew the tournament would be 8 to 9 rounds long, not counting the top 8. I wanted to be able to keep my mental focus even after a really long day, and I thought having time to collect myself between rounds would be really important for that.
As for the exact Valakut list, I had put a lot of thought into it and debated with several people about card choices. In the end, they won me over on some points but not all, and I was very happy with the final list I played after hashing out the card choices so extensively:
- 2 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 4 Oracle of Mul Daya
- 1 Avenger of Zendikar
- 4 Overgrown Battlement
- 1 Obstinate Baloth
- 4 Primeval Titan
So, some brief explanations on the deck.
Explore is pretty standard.
Rampant Growth because the plan is to go from two to four to six.
The singleton Birds because it turns all the Green Sun’s Zeniths into potential 2CC ramp spells too.
Harrow is there for the sometimes necessary ability to trigger Valakut at instant speed, which Cultivate can’t do.
The Battlements are pretty standard also, though some people tried to convince me that Lotus Cobra was better, so I’ll say a brief word on that: No! The reasoning is this: the Cobra dies more, only gets you mana when you play lands (and sometimes you’ll need mana with no land to playâ€”believe it or not!), and sucks at blocking. While you CAN get more explosive draws, there are a lot of cards in Magic that will give you more explosive draws but at the cost of consistency.
This was something I had to be convinced of. I thought Valakut was going to be so popular that I wanted to build my deck to get my Titan online first. One of the ways I thought I could do this was to run Summoning Trap, which I can play on turn 4 more easily than the Zenith.
However, in practice, I was missing with the Traps more than I liked, and I didn’t want to put my tournament life on the line to hit a Battlement, Birds, or nothing at all. Besides, the Zenith lets you build your deck with some one-ofs that could be important in certain situations, and I ended up liking this more versatile build better.
Maindeck Obstinate Baloth and Acidic Slime:
Because I had the Zenith instead of the Trap, I figured “Why not?” Having options in a game of Magic is a powerful thing, and I didn’t think that either card would go to waste. Over the course of the tournament, each card singlehandedly won me a game, but I just boarded them out in matchups where I didn’t think these situations were very likely to come up.
When my friend, Josh Trudeau, suggested that Solemn was bad, I was aghast, and it seemed like most lists had maxed Solemns and not Oracles. However, after playing with both cards, and giving it a lot of thought, I realized that it WAS better to have Oracles over Solemns. I was playing against decks where I never blocked and getting a 4CC Rampant Growth on a pretty irrelevant body.
One concern was that you might not have green mana, but you don’t want to keep any hands where you can’t ramp before turn 4 anyway; plus hardly anyone is playing Spreading Seas, so that seems like a non-issue. Oracle is just so amazing against non-red decks that it’s crazy! Even Tempered Steel has so much evasion that I wasn’t blocking with Solemn! Not only that, but Oracle is part of the turn 4 Titan equation in the mirror match; for example because you can play it on turn 3 and then play enough lands to drop a Titan on turn 4. Caw-Blade decks, trying to Mana Leak my spells or just keep Titans and Valakuts off the table, have a hard time dealing with this card!
On to the sideboard:
I think that it’s pretty straightforward and very similar to what other players are running. My friend Aaron McCaslin persuaded me to run Slagstorm over Pyroclasm because it’s better against Tempered Steel, and I actually won a game against RDW by burning THEM out with Slagstorm a turn before they killed me! The Baloths come in against RDW, the Memoricides for Splinter Twin and the mirror, and the artifact removal mostly for Tempered Steel and Tezzeretâ€”though Nature’s Claim comes in against Splinter Twin too. Thrun is for RDW and UB Control mostly. Against RDW, sometimes you just want a guy they can’t kill who can block forever!
So that’s enough about the deck, onto the matches!
Round 1: Dan Hunt playing UB Tezzeret
Game 1 he gets a relatively slow start, but mine is explosive with enough ramp to hit a turn 4 Titan. When he doesn’t have removal for it, he loses next turn.
Game 2 he doesn’t play a card before turn 4 when he Memoricides all my Primeval Titans. I Zenith for Thrun next turn, and he plays Phyrexian Metamorph to legend rule it (yes this works, Metamorph doesn’t target!). I get a hit in with Raging Ravine and am trying to get Valakut online. Then he has a 5/5 animated Everflowing Chalice and an Island, so I attack with my now 5/5 Raging Ravine. I figure he’ll block and then with only one mana left, I can resolve Harrow and kill him; he Dismembers my Ravine instead. The end result is the same though.
Round 2: Drew Herr playing Mono-White Tempered Steel
Game 2 he mulls to six, and I get a near perfect ramp but no Titan. Then when I do draw the Titan, he kills it. He has me dead the next turn, but I draw another Titan and am able to kill him with that plus the Slagstorm I brought in.
Game 3 we both keep our seven, and I have lots of my SB hate. I decline to play ramp on turn 2 because he has three Vault Skirge, and I’m concerned he might go for Tempered Steel, which I will want to Nature’s Claim right then. He doesn’t play Steel, but I untap and Slagstorm all his guys. A couple turns later, he Dispatches both my Walls to keep me at four mana, and he has Steel in play now. I Zenith for another Wall and play the Claim on the Steel. Next turn, I hit Titan mana, and it’s over from there.
Round 3: Harlan Broughton playing Red Deck Wins
A deck check kicks things off, but both of us are fine. Game 1 he doesn’t do much but play three Grim Lavamancers, but I have a decent hand and drop an early Titan and am still at thirteen when I win.
Game 3 I have a pretty good hand, but he Dismembers all my creatures and ends up with a Koth on the board. When I play a Titan next turn, he Dismembers and burns it, but I’m able to play another the turn after and win from there with that plus Slagstorm.
Round 4: Corey (didn’t get his last name) playing Caw-Blade
Game 3 plays much closer to the first, and the match is over fairly quickly in my favor.
My main deck is so good against Caw-Blade that I just take out the Baloth for Thrun (though you can’t regenerate from Wrath of God, you can from Day of Judgment, so they have no way to really kill him).
Round 5: Jimmy (didn’t get his last name either) also playing Caw-Blade
Game 1 he can’t put any pressure on me. Let’s face it; Hawks don’t do much, and Golem tokens just get blocked by Battlements. I get Oracle online again, resolve a Titan, and win a turn later.
Game 2 I mull to five and keep a one-land hand with Terramorphic Expanse as the single land. He plays a land, says go, and then realizes that he had Leyline of Sanctity in his hand and asks if he can put it into play, but, since I don’t allow take backs, I say no. I miss my land drop on turn 2 and think “Uh oh…” but he doesn’t do much on his turn except durdle around with Preordains. Thankfully, I hit my land the following turn and am able to play a ramp spell.
When he taps out for his Leyline of Sanctity, I am praying to not miss my land again because I have Oracle of Mul Daya in hand, but my deck lets me down, and I pass my turn. He plays Jace Beleren and draws cards, still durdling around, and then I hit my land for Oracle, and my next two cards are lands, and I’m back in it, just like that! So, then he plays Consecrated Sphinx and can draw cards to his heart’s content; only I play a Titan and kill it. Not much later, I am able to Zenith for my lone Slime and destroy his Leyline.
Round 6: Adam Snook playing Red Deck Wins
While I never saw any Shrine of Burning Rage from my earlier opponent, Adam definitely had them. He is several times able to kill a Titan with a Shrine. He manages to get me to single digits both games, but my Baloths keep me afloat and on the offensive, and I’m able to win a turn before he does both times.
Game 2 is close enough that he wins if he can draw a land to play both a burn spell and activate a Shrine, but fortunately he doesn’t.
Round 7: Tim Landale playing Valakut
At this point, we just intentionally draw.
Round 8: Chase (don’t know his last name) playing Caw-Blade (I think…)
Again, I ID with my opponent.
Quarterfinals: Don’t remember my opponent’s name (it was a long day and I took fewer and fewer notes after each round…) playing Splinter Twin
So the standings were posted, and I was first, and there was some question about who was in eighth place because of tiebreakers.
At first I think I’m facing off against Puresteel Paladin, but then I find I’m paired against the only Splinter Twin deck, which is my worst matchup. This is a bit hard to take, as I’ve made Top 8 of both of the last two local PTQs but lost in the Quarterfinals, and I foresee that happening here too; the matchup seems pretty close to unwinnable.
However, I am aware that sometimes any deck can falter (especially combo decks and especially THIS combo deck), so I just plan to forego any kind of conservative play and just try to close out games as quickly as possible.
Game 1 he counters my early ramp and is having a hard time hitting double red, but I build to six mana, even in the face of him attacking my lands with Tectonic Edges and Deceiver Exarch triggers, and go for it. A turn later, game 1 is over in my favor, and we are both shocked.
Game 2 makes me really nervous because he hits his blue and red mana, and my plan A was for him to get mana-screwed or color-screwed apparently. However, after he counters some of my early ramp, he again can’t stop a Primeval Titan. He played Koth the turn before, but it doesn’t do too much. I guess he drew Flashfreeze a turn later because everyone was saying he should’ve Into the Roiled something before letting Primeval Titan resolve. I did draw a sideboard Memoricide, but I didn’t have the black mana, and the game was at a really late stage where it was just better to play Primeval Titan.
Semifinals: Peter playing UW Tempered Steel
This matchup seems way better to me than the previous round’s, but I’m trying not to feel too comfortable because I saw Peter eliminate Tim Landale, who was the other Valakut player in the Top 8, and I know the matchup can be really close.
Game 1 he gets a very quick start, and I had kept a two-land hand with two Battlements, Explore, Oracle, and Titan. I’m on the draw, and I figure I have three turns to hit a third land with plays to make if I don’t immediately hit, but his draw is just nuts. I get run over, especially as that third land never materializes.
Game 2 he mulligans and has a slow hand. I have Slagstorm, Titan, Battlement, and four land. He has no turn 1 play but does play Steel Overseer on turn 2. Here, I realize I should’ve just taken the one-for-one with the Slagstorm. I figured that I could at least two-for-one him if he played another creature and activated the Overseer, but instead he played Tempered Steel next turn, and I permanently lose the window to play Slagstorm unless I draw Nature’s Claim. Since I do not, and he ends up having another Tempered Steel to go with the creatures he’s been building on the board as well as the Dispatch for the Titan I play, I promptly lose after that.
In summary, it was still a good day but it could’ve been a lot better. I’m glad I played the deck I played. I don’t think I made a lot of mistakes, but I did notice some, including the last one which was pretty bad and could’ve cost me the tournament (but since I was drawing blanks and he had an answer for my Titan and another Tempered Steel, probably not). Anyway, I highly recommend playing Valakut in upcoming tournaments, but be prepared for the fact that you have a couple of REALLY bad matchupsâ€”none worse than Splinter Twin, which a lot of people seem to like.