I was somewhat tempted to write a tournament report for Grand Prix: Manila this week, since I came within two match points of making my second straight Top 8 with the same deck, but I decided that more people would be interested in my insights on the deck itself rather than more stories of me playing it.
From the results over the past few GP’s, it is clear that Next Level Bant is for real. My combined record across DC, Sendai, and Manila — byes notwithstanding — was 22-7-3, with four of those losses coming with the “raw” version of the deck in DC. The tuned deck made up three of the four undefeated Day 1 decks in Sendai and two of the three undefeateds in Manila, even after the field had a chance to adjust.
The strength of Next Level Bant lies in its flexibility and resilience. It has a very Jund-like quality to it, in that it can shift between control and beatdown at different stages of the game, punishing an opponent for a slow start with Vengevine and Elspeth or grinding them out with Ranger or Eos and Jace. Let’s take a closer look at the deck:
- 2 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Ranger of Eos
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 1 Scute Mob
- 2 Sphinx of Lost Truths
- 4 Sea Gate Oracle
- 4 Vengevine
- 4 Wall of Omens
Mana acceleration is one of the major strengths of this deck. A fast planeswalker or Vengevine can put your opponent on the back foot quickly or establish a quick defense. These are the cards that you’re happiest to see in your opening hand.
One of the most common seemingly minor decisions that comes up with the deck that can have a big impact on your results is whether to play an untapped land and a mana creature or a land that enters the battlefield tapped in the early turns. A good rule of thumb is to map out your curve in your hand and see how each line of play works out. If you don’t risk missing making any major plays without drawing another untapped land by playing the mana creature immediately, it’s generally correct to do so, but it’s not worth risking your ability to play a turn 3 Jace or Elspeth to get a point of Noble Hierarch damage in on turn 2 when you only have one land that enters the battlefield untapped.
I lump these two cards together because they serve very similar purposes in the deck — generating board presence and recurring Vengevine at no cost in card economy. I’ve fielded the question about removing Sea Gate Oracle for Knight of the Reliquary countless times now, and I maintain that Sea Gate Oracle is one of the key cards that makes this deck work how it does. These cards let you throw bodies in front of creatures attacking either you or your planeswalkers without worrying about wasting resources and help you dig through your deck for your key cards more quickly. If these were “real” creatures, you would not be able to so readily grind out games against Jund and U/W control decks in which you’re the one winning the attrition war. Knight of the Reliquary is one of my favorite cards of all time, but this is not the deck for him.
Vengevine is obviously the card around which this deck is built, and it’s important to understand how best to play it if you want to maximize your performance with the deck. Generally speaking, you want to hold creatures in your hand to recur Vengevines, and you want to look for opportunities to trade your Vengevines wherever possible.
That said, even against creature decks where you’re generally in the control role, it’s crucial to identify situations in which you can attack with Vengevine. You are not a pure control deck, and you do not have trump cards like Martial Coup to provide inevitability. You need to close out games, and finding opportunities to attack with Vengevine is the best way to do it. Pressuring your opponent’s life total also drastically cuts down on their options and gives you windows to end the game if your opponent takes certain lines of play.
As I mentioned last week, I tried the deck without the Ranger package and found it significantly weaker. Ranger has the obvious benefits of searching up Scute Mob and ensuring you can bring back Vengevine, but it also impacts games in more subtle ways as well. Padding your hand against Blightning in the midgame, searching for chump blockers to protect planeswalkers or help race, fetching mana to help you attack with Colonnades or kick Sphinx of Lost Truths, or even just shuffling with Jace are all options that wouldn’t be reason enough to include Ranger in a deck on their own, but add up to a tremendous amount of flexibility. I’ve won games due to using Ranger for every one of these things. Options win games.
Sphinx is another card that is all about options. One of those options is “discard a bunch of Vengevines and kick your opponent’s teeth in,” while the other is “draw a bunch of cards and bury your opponent in card advantage.” In all seriousness, Sphinx is a card that can be difficult to play because the options it gives you can pull you in very different directions. It can certainly be tempting to hold on to a Vengevine rather than play it on turn 4 so you can discard it to Sphinx, or to hold out on casting a Sphinx until you draw a land so you can kick it. It’s difficult to give guidelines for what is correct because it’s so dependent on the game state, but generally speaking you want to prioritize stabilizing your board presence over eking out card advantage since you have so many tools to win you a long game.
I don’t think I have used the -1 ability on Jace as much in the rest of my time using the card as I have while playing this deck. As I mentioned with respect to Sphinx a moment ago, for cards in this deck that afford you multiple options, it is generally better to focus on taking control of the board and denying your opponent options than just about anything else. It’s particularly important to keep in mind what your opponent might play that can deal with your Jace when you decide what ability to use. If your opponent has a board that’s empty except for a single creature and will have access to 2WW the next turn, it’s almost always best to bounce their creature to protect your Jace from Elspeth the following turn. The worst case scenario is that your opponent does something like Oblivion Ring your Jace, in which case you have come out at least even in the mana exchange, but often all your opponent can do is replay their creature, in which case you get to untap with Jace online and have many more options for how to defend it.
I think Elspeth may very well be the best card in this deck, if not the best card in Standard as a whole. I’ve said time and again that the strength of this deck lies in its flexibility and how quickly it can shift from control to an aggressive stance, and it is Elspeth even more than Vengevine that makes this possible. It’s easy to see that Elspeth represents a major threat against control decks as a token producer that can launch your creatures over blockers and that against beatdown decks it serves as a continuous stream of chump blockers. But the really powerful thing about Elspeth is that it can quickly shift from one of these roles to the other.
What makes Elspeth so particularly powerful in this deck is that the rest of the cards support that shift remarkably well. All of a sudden, rather than making tokens to block and grinding your Jund opponent out, you can send a Vengevine and a Colonnade to the air for 11. This ability to change gears can kill an unsuspecting opponent out of nowhere, and can place huge constraints on even a savvy opponent’s line of play.
Last but certainly not least, Elspeth is the planeswalker that beats all the other planeswalkers in a fight. Since Standard is so heavily defined by planeswalkers right now, having Elspeth advantage over your opponent is crucial. If you have Elspeth in play, you know your opponent can’t play an Elspeth of their own and jump a creature to kill your Jace, and if they play Jace you can very easily kill it yourself. It is largely for this reason that when given the choice, I almost universally play Elspeth over Jace onto an empty board. Elspeth can defend both you and herself, and can threaten any planeswalker you opponent might play. It’s hard to ask for more than that.
I’m not sure how I’d fit it, but if I were to play the deck again I’d strongly consider playing a fourth Elspeth. While draws with multiple Elspeths are certainly somewhat clunky, it’s the most important card in the deck in a number of matchups, including against the new Turboland decks that have sprung up in recent weeks. Something to think about, at least.
1 Gideon Jura:
Gideon is a strange card. Sometimes you draw him and he seems like pretty much the greatest thing ever and the only way you could possibly win the game, but sometimes he amounts to no more than a Fog. I definitely like having one in the deck, because Gideon is the sort of card that can win some games on his own, but five mana is a lot for a card that can sometimes have virtually no impact on the game. It’s one of your best cards against Mythic or Naya, but it’s pretty underwhelming against Jund or control decks. Jund just grinds him out unless you’ve already stabilized the game, while against control he’s often just an expensive spell that runs into a Negate.
I’m a big fan of this particular removal suite because it combines flexibility and efficiency. While I rarely want to use Path in the early turns against any deck, the fact that it costs only a single White mana lets you make advantageous mana exchanges even later in the game that can get you ahead on the board. I think one of the most overlooked plays with Path in this deck is using it on your own creatures. Pathing your own Wall of Omens, Sea Gate Oracle, or Noble Hierarch who is about to die can help accelerate you to a growing Scute Mob or a kicked Sphinx before your opponent expects it without a loss of card economy to you. Don’t tunnel vision on Path as a pure removal spell — keep in mind all of the options it gives you and pay attention to opportunities to use it on your own creatures profitably.
Bant Charm is the card that I most commonly see people try to cut from this list, but I absolutely love it. Bant Charm can remove a creature with no downside or protect a Vengevine from Path to Exile, both of which can be game-winning plays. I particularly like Bant Charm against Jund, where sending a Thrinax to the bottom or countering half of a Bituminous Blast can both be game-winning plays, especially when your opponent waits to do the latter on your turn in response to an Elspeth “jump.” And I’ve killed more than one Borderpost and Pithing Needle with the oft-forgotten third mode! I’d play more of them in the main except hands with multiple Charms can be very clunky against the wrong deck.
Oblivion Ring is the catch-all that’s mostly there to have a good solution to planeswalkers besides attacking them. It’s important to remember, however, that one of the reasons this deck is so powerful is that it’s a planeswalker deck that is actually good at attacking opposing planeswalkers. Don’t rush to Oblivion Ring every planeswalkers you see on the other side of the table. Look to see whether you can take it down by attacking and hold on to your Oblivion Rings for later.
I’ve gotten a number of questions regarding the land mix of the deck, and in particular whether I think the deck would be better without Seaside Citadel and with more lands that enter the battlefield untapped. I can’t say that I’ve tested the deck with a significantly different land mix, but I can say that I feel like the lands entering the battlefield tapped is much less significant than not having the proper colors to cast your spells. This is a deck that wants GG, WW, and UUU — it’s hard to consistently get all of those and avoid playing with Seaside Citadel. If there were any enters the battlefield tapped land I’d consider cutting, it would be Stirring Wildwood first, for another copy of Sunpetal Grove, but even there I think the extra value you get from the Grove over the long run is a bigger deal than the occasional game where you have too many tap lands.
All of the sideboards I’ve played with this deck have looked a little funky to the casual observer, with a lot of one- and two-ofs and very few threes and fours. I’m not going to go into too much detail now on the specifics of why my sideboard numbers were what they were because I’m going to write an entire article about sideboarding in the near future, but I will go over each of the cards and the roles they played.
Negate is obviously an anti-control card, but Deprive requires a bit more explanation. We ran a 2 Negate, 2 Deprive split in GP: DC because we felt we wanted at least 4 counters against control decks, but also wanted some kind of countermagic against Mythic and Jund, which generally had a few big spells you wanted to counter in a game (Sovereigns, Siege Gang Commander). This split also gave some additional value in the control matchups in that it could deal with Baneslayer Angel or Sphinx of Jwar Isle if they happened to appear without having to devote slots specifically to handling them.
Obviously the best removal spell possible against Jund. I had three in Sendai and went down to two in Manila, mainly because I felt that the Jund matchup was good enough that I could sacrifice a tiny bit to fit cards for other matchups, but also because I expected to see more Master of the Wild Hunt, which Celestial Purge can’t answer.
But Bant Charm can! Bant Charm is both a solid removal spell against Jund and Mythic and a reasonable card to board in against U/W decks as a solution to Baneslayer Angel that can also counter Path and not just sit in your hand like most removal spells. The fact that Bant Charm can destroy Pithing Needle is also a pretty big deal, since Needle is the best answer Jund has for Elspeth, and you don’t want to have to board in cards specifically to deal with that. It can also destroy Basilisk Collar and Behemoth Sledge out of Naya, both of which can swing games in that matchup as well. It is also incidentally a fantastic answer to Eldrazi Monument, which is a card a lot of people have looked at as a foil to NLB.
Oust, as I mentioned in my previous articles about this deck, is primarily intended to stop Lotus Cobra decks like Mythic and Naya from getting too far ahead of you on mana. Ousting an early mana creature significantly disrupts their development. I’ve personally had reasonable success beating Mythic with the Oust plus removal package, but it’s possible that it’s not enough to swing the matchup overall. If I were to play the deck again, I’d probably swap the Ousts for Day of Judgment just to have a big impact card for those matchups.
This is the card that Yuuya played over Oust, which I disagreed with, but I think Journey does have a place in the sideboard. Journey is cheap enough and versatile enough that you can bring it in against any creature deck, from Mythic to Jund to Naya. I think it’s worth having some number for additional removal when you need it and to make efficiency swaps when you need that, as well.
Pridemage is a multi-purpose card that has value in a lot of matchups. Against U/W Control decks and the mirror he’s an aggressive card that can help win Oblivion Ring wars over planeswalkers, and against Mythic he’s a card who can sit on board and threaten to remove an Eldrazi Conscription for just one mana. Since the Mythic matchup comes down so much to mana exchanges and windows of opportunity, being able to deal with their one explosive turn with a cheap on-board answer can swing games on its own.
I had Oblivion Ring in my sideboard for Sendai but cut it for Manila. I think Oblivion Ring actually gets worse after sideboard in most of the matchups where you want it — U/W decks often bring in Kor Sanctifiers and Mythic or the mirror bring in Pridemages. In the face of that fact, I felt like there were better options available.
This was my mirror tech in Manila, with the idea that it was a card that demanded an immediate answer early on or else you could get significantly ahead by killing mana creatures and generating wolves to attack planeswalkers. I’m not sure if it’s worth the slots, since it’s actually not a better play than Elspeth on turn 4, and while the Master is a decent card against Mythic as well, it’s not as impactful as Day of Judgment is there.
Now that’s we’ve looked at the deck, let’s take a look at its matchups:
While the early version of this deck was solid against Jund, I feel like the tuned version is fantastic against it. It’s dangerous to talk about Jund in broad terms, though, because there are so many versions of Jund out there that you have to be very aware of the specific cards your opponent is playing in order to correctly identify what you’re up against. As Jund players have become aware of NLB and appropriately adapted their strategies to beat it, the edge you have against them has shrunk, but I still feel like you’re advantaged.
Jund is used to playing ant attrition based game against creature decks, grinding them out with the card advantage generated by cascade and cards like Siege-Gang Commander. NLB is actually better suited to playing the attrition game than Jund is, so Jund players who fall into that typical understanding of their role in creature matchups are doomed to die to Vengevine the umpteenth time it comes back from the graveyard. Cards like Siege-Gang Commander, which seem like they should be so powerful in the matchup, are actually quite clunky and slow, especially after sideboarding when the NLB player has access to Celestial Purge and Bant Charm, and even Deprive if they want it.
Let’s look at these two decks:
Shouta’s deck is the more traditional version of Jund, curving up to bigger spells like Siege-Gang Commander and Broodmate Dragon. Yuuta has gone a very different route, jettisoning anything expensive that doesn’t have an impact on the game immediately and lowering his curve overall with Master of the Wild Hunt.
I beat Shouta three times across the two Asian Grand Prix, twice playing for undefeated on Day 1 and once in the semis of Sendai. Yuuta, on the other hand, was the only Jund player who beat me across both tournaments.
What does this mean? The way for Jund to beat NLB — and thus the strategy that NLB needs to defend against in order to beat savvy Jund players — is beatdown. Jund needs to apply as much pressure as possible to NLB’s life total to try to close out the game before recurring Vengevines can take control. This means making plays like Terminating Wall of Omens, Lightning Bolting your own Thrinax in response to removal, and just sending your team into Vengevines if it means getting damage in and forcing your opponent to bring them back the next turn.
The way to fight against this as NLB is to play very cautiously and try to preserve your life total. Try to avoid making plays that give your opponent the chance to blow you out with Maelstrom Pulse — even if having a second Wall of Omens in play looks like a good idea, you’ll often want to play out something else and hold on to your second Wall, for instance, since you give them an enormous amount of tempo if you let them Pulse both of them. Use your removal spells primarily on Sprouting Thrinax, because Vengevine can trade with everything else while actually depleting their board position.
My typical sideboarding strategy against more standard Jund strategies was:
Against a more aggressive Jund strategy, however, Path is one of your best cards, and Deprive is poor. I’d board more like this:
Remember, it’s crucial that you pay attention to the cards your opponent plays each game so you understand what you’re up against. Sitting around with a Deprive in your hand against a Jund deck with nothing that costs more than four makes you feel pretty silly.
U/W Control and Planeswalkers
Yes, these are different decks, and it’s important to be aware of their differences, but the matchups play out very similarly. In both matchups, your primary goal is planeswalker advantage. You want to contain their planeswalkers by attacking them where possible and try to keep your own in play. The most important card in these matchups is Elspeth, because Elspeth wins all planeswalker fights. You want to get down the first Elspeth, and you never want to let your opponent keep an Elspeth in play because she can completely ruin any chance you have of attacking their other planeswalkers with Vengevines.
Don’t be afraid of playing a long game. Between Vengevine, Ranger of Eos, and Sphinx of Lost Truths, you can often out-resource your opponent in games in which neither of you sticks a Jace, and eventually you’ll keep some threat down and they’ll lose. Be sure to play quickly, though, and don’t be afraid to call a judge if you feel your opponent is playing slowly. I have had multiple matches against Planeswalkers end either 1-0 or in a 1-1 draw because the first game took ages. Beware of Martial Coup — it’s pretty much the only card they can have that profitably fights back against Vengevine.
The matchup is favorable for you in game 1, but becomes much moreso after sideboarding:
In Sendai I had Mold Shambler and Oblivion Ring over the two Pridemages, which are what I brought in there. The strategy doesn’t change much after sideboarding, except now your deck is full of streamlined answers to everything threatening they can do. Gideon comes out because they’re certain to have Negate after sideboarding and he’s just not powerful enough for a five cost spell if they can stop him for two mana. The Bant Charm comes in as a hedge against Baneslayer that can counter a Path or win a counter fight over a Negate on an important spell.
Mythic is the toughest matchup of the popular decks. Their deck can invalidate all of the incremental advantages your deck is focused on building by just killing you out of nowhere with Sovereigns, or can just use their mana advantage to play planeswalkers faster than you and win that way. They can largely ignore your Vengevines thanks to all of their creatures just being bigger than they are. In short, it’s ugly.
But it’s not that bad. My record against Mythic is about 50% across all three tournaments where I’ve played NLB, and the key to the matchup is focusing on what matters, and that is board presence. You need to look for profitable mana exchanges and keep them from getting ahead. That’s how I came to think of Oust as a possible sideboard card against them — I felt like I needed a cheap spell that I could either use early to stunt their development or in the mid game so I could develop my own board with something like a Jace (bouncing their creature, of course) while still being able to cast something that keeps them under control.
This sideboarding is up in the air, since I haven’t tested a meaningful amount of games with the Day plan. Wall doesn’t block anything meaningful so it comes out, and both Ranger and Vengevine are lower impact in this matchup than any other because of how big the creatures in Mythic are. Some number of Vengevines certainly stay in to attack opposing planeswalkers, but the card isn’t nearly as good as it is in other matchups. It’s possible some number of Sphinx should come out, as well, since it’s fairly expensive, but it can also attack planeswalkers, and you ultimately need to win with something. I’d suggest trying your own sideboarding plans and seeing what works for you — I’m certainly open to suggestions.
Naya is basically a bad Mythic deck. They can’t threaten you nearly as quickly as Mythic can, and the only powerful thing their deck really does is Sparkmage/Collar, which you can deal with in any number of ways, especially after sideboarding. Your Vengevines and Rangers are awesome here, too.
I played a good deal against Martin Juza and Ben Stark playing this deck prior to GP Manila, and while it’s certainly a bad matchup, I don’t think it’s the bye that a lot of players at the SCG Open in Seattle made it out to be. Your most important card here is Elspeth, because she can let you jump over Avenger of Zendikar and pummel your opponent with Vengevines.
I’m not sure what the best sideboarding options are against this deck. I’m inclined to think that Meddling Mage would be good, though I’m not entirely sure what you’d name in the dark — probably Oracle of Mul Daya. If you’re interested in playing NLB and you’re concerned about Turboland, that’s probably where I’d start.
With my existing sideboard, though, I’d probably do something like this:
NLB is certainly a strong deck, and one that I expect will continue to have a place in the metagame as the season progresses. It has a tremendous amount of flexibility, but with so many options comes a large number of decisions, which means a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. Hopefully I’ve given you some useful guides here to help you make those decisions and avoid those mistakes, but I’d advise you don’t pick up the deck cold and bring it to a PTQ. Definitely practice the deck before you sit down for round 1 or you’ll find your head exploding from so many possible lines of play.
Good luck, and if you have any questions, I’ll try to address them in the forums.
Until next time…