The Chump Block – A Little Bit of Everything

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Friday, December 18th – In this week’s edition of The Chump Block, Zach discusses Jund, his Open the Vaults deck, and Sarkhan Vol. He also interviews Justin Souza, who placed second on the Standard Saturday of the SCG $10K Open St. Louis weekend!

It’s not a format that is going to last for long, so I don’t imagine that people want an article on it, but I have been playing almost exclusively triple Exodus online as of late. It’s been one of Magic Online’s biggest flops so far — to my knowledge not a single premier release event fired — but I find the format incredibly fun. Perhaps I’m tired of drafting formats like Shards and Zendikar, where speed and mana consistency are the respective primary concerns; perhaps I miss being able to out-evaluate players in terms of what cards are solid since no one writes about the format; perhaps is my nostalgia, as I actually drafted the set millions of years ago. Whatever the case may be, Exodus is, appropriately enough, a ‘classic’ Magic set to draft, insofar that card-advantage and evasion are by far the most important elements. Keeper of the Mind is a card that is so comically good that I’m consistently surprised when I see it go around late. It says “draw a card,” where the only stipulation is that your opponent have more cards than you, not terribly hard in a set where buyback is a major mechanic. Besides, how awesome is it to be able to play Spike Weaver AND Recurring Nightmare in the same draft deck? The answer is “very.”

The only other Magic-related endeavors that I’ve had time for recently was FNM – to which I again brought the artifact deck that I talked about last week – and a Monday night playtesting session. I had a chance to make some changes this time, most of which I am very happy with. Specifically, I realized how much of a blowout Soul Manipulation can be, so I jammed two more into the deck. That card can be just so unfair. At worst, you’re countering an insignificant threat of theirs or merely returning a mediocre monster. At best, you’re returning something like a Sharuum, the Hegemon while countering something like a Siege-Gang Commander or Broodmate Dragon or Baneslayer Angel. I don’t know how to quantify that number wise, but it seems to be a whole lotta card advantage packaged in a single card. In fact, it’s one of the only ways to not lose card advantage to a Broodmate or Siege-gang without a Day of Judgment. With so many cyclers in the deck, it’s almost guaranteed to have a target by the third turn, making it a Dismiss with a down payment. I even added a 9th cycler, the most embarrassing card in the deck, Sanctum Plowbeast. To make room for the additions, I cut the Courier’s Capsules for them as they always felt too slow. They were nice at combating Blightnings from Jund, but one of the nice things about the deck is that a single Blightning is never a blow out. Often, it can just be shrugged off, as discarding artifacts only makes that turn 6 Open the Vaults that much better. I also added Veldaken Outlanders to the maindeck since I seemed to board them in all the time. After testing against Jund, I am happy to say that they were everything I wanted them to be. They were the sweetness again and again, as Jund only has Maelstrom Pulses which can remove them as blockers (for the most part). In any case, I made it to the finals of FNM with the deck for the second time in a row, drawing this time so that I could make it to a party.

Testing at our stomping ground the Monday afterward proved illuminating. We sat with no particular goal in mind. The SCG $10k Open St. Louis was in the books, meaning that, aside from FNMs or the next $10k come January, nothing on the horizon was begging any sort of hardcore Standard playtesting. Some new decks had been brought to the table, including one that Alvin brought whose only non-creature spells were 2 Path to Exile (that’s to say, lots of creatures). I happened to play Ty who was piloting his Jund deck, running the unusual choice of Sarkhan Vol over Garruk (which I’ll discuss in a minute). Somewhere in the 10-game set, Ty made a comment to the effect of, “I’d like to figure out how I’m supposed to beat your deck.” It wasn’t a comment that I gave much mind to at the time, and it’s certainly not one that is anywhere near epiphany-inducing. It actually pretty much encompasses the concept of ‘playtesting’ in general; we play these matchups so that we know which angles of attack we should pursue when we face the real thing in a tournament setting.

I wasn’t as focused as I could have been during these matches, making some mistakes here and there, which made my 7-3 record against him that much more uplifting. The games that I lost were oh-so close, whereas the games I won seemed like smooth sailing for the most part. After ten games, Ty casually commented, “I don’t think I’m supposed to Lightning Bolt your creatures,” and suddenly I was no longer winning. To defend myself and my pride, this next set of games comprised the ones where I was getting stuck at 3 or 4 or 5 lands, and the games where I was getting Blightninged 2 or 3 times, but it was clear that a Paradigm Shift had taken place within the recesses of Ty’s mind as I ended up losing 8 games in a row. To anyone who plays a small (i.e. 10) set of games and uses that data to boast a percentage against a certain deck, this example is proof that a small sample size can give wildly varying results. There were several things that my clever opponent was doing differently that seemed, at least from a numbers standpoint, to help him win. Over those 8 games, I would venture that Ty Bolted his Sprouting Thrinaxes more than he Bolted me or my creatures. The resulting Saporlings were one of the only ways his had to kill Veldaken Outlander, and my deck rarely gave him a chance to profit from their death by trapping them within the confines of a Oblivion Ring. He also was never, ever letting himself succumb to the perils of playing into a Soul Manipulation, as he had keenly pointed out how much of a beating it was to get caught in one. He was occasionally playing around a card I didn’t have, but the damage he would have incurred by falling for my trap greatly outweighed the occasional loss of tempo. Because I was stumbling on mana, I was often unable to post up a preventative measure to whatever creature he had managed to resolve while also having resources open to counter.

It’s good to get to this point in testing. Not because “getting to a point where one starts to lose” is a good thing, but rather figuring out what measures the opponent can take to make your life harder is essential to winning. Playing a rogue deck in a tournament has a couple of advantages, the most obvious of which is the lack of knowledge and experience your opponent will have when dealing with your deck. Cards like Soul Manipulation or Zealous Persecution get much weaker when your opponent is expecting them and/or knows how to properly combat them, and while you might catch some opponents unawares, playing at the higher tables with a bizarre combination of cards eventually draws people’s attention. Getting to the point where a friend is giving you more of a run for your money can help with deck building errors as well. I routinely found that the games I was losing were the ones where I was “getting stuck” on lands. This seems obvious, but “getting stuck” on land for this deck mostly translates to “not being able to cast Open the Vaults.” Six mana is the threshold for the deck, and if it can reach it comfortably, it has a much easier time winning. I was only running 23 lands in the deck prior to this, a number that seems much smaller than it actually is when you factor in the 9 cyclers that the deck has. Whether this means I need to add more lands or Armillary Spheres to the deck, or simply a land in the sideboard, only more testing can tell. Moving on…

When Ty first played Sarkhan Vol, I was intrigued. Then I was awestruck. Then I was flabbergasted. Why has no Jund list ever run him before? I have to think that someone, somewhere tried him at some point, was disappointed in the results, and decided against using him. I remember he was heralded as this incredible planeswalker and fetched a huge pricetag when Shards was released but never really found a home. Jund, I think, could be his new home. I can say with confidence that if Ty had been running Garruk in said position, I would have won many more matches. As it turned out, it soon became the most feared card for me in our matches. If he ever had two in his hand, it was game over. He once lived the dream (making 5 Dragons and then dropping a second Sarkhan to give them all haste) but probably the best use of them from the night was when he removed the last two counters from a Sarkhan to steal a creature, then Pulsed a O-ring to get back a Putrid Leech and a second Sarkhan, giving all of his guys haste and killing me.

As someone who plays Garruk online in his Jund build, I can admit to being a bit behind the times, as Master of the Wild Hunt seems to have replaced the once ubiquitous Planeswalker. While I’m not sure how the R/G Planeswalker compares to the Master, I don’t necessarily feel that they’re mutually exclusive. And while Garruk and Sarkhan Vol both interact well with hordes of tokens, there are several reasons why I feel the latter might be better. Often when one plays a Garruk against an opponent who is probably packing Lightning Bolt or Bloodbraid Elf, there exists a potential problem. Using the -1 ability does immediately provide card advantage as they are forced to waste a Bolt, at the very least, on your Planeswalker directly. But often one’s opponent can simply kill the beast and then kill the ‘Walker with minimal losses. Yes, it may occasionally put them in a little bit of a pickle, but as a Planeswalker, one of the supposed ‘better’ cards in the deck, shouldn’t it do more than simply draw out a removal spell? One trend that I’ve found is that people now often use the +1 ability to stifle any attempts to burn Garruk away, but really if that’s the case, who cares? Unless you’re hurting for that last two mana to ramp out a turn 5 Broodmate Dragon, Garruk’s +1 ability essentially does nothing for Jund. In comparison, let’s look at Sarkhan. First, his stating loyalty is at a moderate 4. Not terribly high, but higher than the alternative. Second, his +1 ability actually does something relevant! True, with an empty board his plus ability is a little bit more useless than Garruk’s, but I’d also much, much rather use his ultimate ability on an empty board.

I think what I like most about Sarkhan Vol is his propensity for completely broken turns. With Garruk, the outcome is right there. Can he Overrun this turn? If not, is my opponent more like to make a Beast, or is gaining a loyalty more important to him? With my new favorite Planeswalker the Jund player can do any number of broken things: dropping a Broodmate Dragon suddenly becomes 10 flying damage. Dropping a Siege-gang suddenly creates a much more frightening army which, against an empty board, is nine hasted damage. Wowzers. I hope I’ve talked up my 4-casting-cost friend enough so that people try him out, because I know I’m going to be playing with him more. Perhaps it was because I was relying on a deck whose crowd control options was limited to sorcery speed spells, but he seems like a pretty awesome upgrade.

I had the privilege — no, the honor — of sitting next to Justin Souza in our little playtesting session. I was unable to make it, but Justin a few others made the trip to St. Louis this past weekend for the $10k, and Justin was lucky enough to be battle his way to the almost-top of Standard Saturday. He ended in second place piloting the in vogue “Barely Boros” deck, a more Red-aligned version than its Steppe Lynx riddled cousin. Here is the list:

I asked Justin to talk about the deck a little more in depth, as I have seen it put up impressive numbers and do some impressive things.

Zach: What are the advantages/disadvantages of playing Barely Boros over its two most closely related kin: plain old Boros Bushwhacker and boring old Mono Red beats?

Justin: I like to think of Barely Boros as a combination of the two archetypes. It has the potential to do huge amounts of damage in a turn with the help of landfall fueled Shrines and Geopedes, while also having the ‘inevitability’ factor that I think makes RDW so good. Ajani and Path to Exile also add a fair bit of flexibility to an otherwise rigid plan of attack.

Zach: What cards were continual overperformers/underperformers throughout the day? Are there any changes you’d make to the deck/sideboard?

Justin: Zektar Shrine Expedition was great all day. Most decks have no answer for the enchantment, and tapping out against it often meant losing to a 10-15 damage turn. Mark of Mutiny main was also very good, as it was never expected. Ideally, by the time your opponent can cast a stabilizing creature, the Mark is lethal. As for the board, I would replace Volcanic Fallout with either Dragon Claws or Quenchable Fire, depending on what the metagame looks like.

Zach: Where there any memorable experiences that you can recall from the day? Any amazing come from behind wins/out of nowhere wins?

Justin: Ummm. The final turn of my feature match with Richard Feldman is a good example of what was happening all day. With the help of 16 fetchlands, Naya Panorama in particular, it’s not unlikely to have two fully powered and swinging Expedition tokens on the 4th turn. Fun stuff.

Zach: Were there any super sick plays that you can remember?

Justin: Nothing sticks out.

Zach: What are the decks worst matchups, and what are its best? Did you come into the tournament with any sort of plan set in place for each of the matchups, or was it more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants sort of day?

Justin: Jund, and the slower control decks meant to combat it, are about the best matchups one can hope, for while RDW and GWx can be problematic without the right board plans. I had a plan which Mehran Latiff and I worked out on the drive down to the event.

Zach: I noticed Manabarbs was not in your sideboard, a card that seems to be popular for aggressive Red decks. Was this a purposeful omission, or was it not even considered?

Justin: Manabarbs is a fine card, but I’m not sure Barely Boros needs it.

Zach: Will you buy me anything with the money? What will you buy me?

Justin: A plane ticket to Cali for the GP, most likely.

What a pal! Hopefully, I’ll be back after Christmas with something new and spicy. Thanks for reading.

Zach Jesse
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Zoochz on MTGO