This past weekend saw the first event of the StarCityGames.com $10K Open series in St Louis. As a player, writer, and student of the game of Magic, this tournament series is very exciting. With so many high profile tournaments happening on a regular basis, there is a constant stream of results coming in for both Standard and Legacy, not to mention tournaments that I can actually play in! I’ll almost certainly be at the upcoming SCG Open weekend in Los Angeles, but since I wasn’t able to make it so St Louis, my commentary this week will be limited to the decklists from that event.
It was no surprise to anyone that Jund was the most played deck of the event, making up 74 members of the field. It did not, however, post nearly as dominating a performance at the top tables, with only two of the Top 8 sporting Broodmate Dragon and company. In fact, as Aaron Forsythe pointed out on Twitter, there were more Islands in the Top 8 than Savage Lands! One might think it is a sign of a dark time indeed when the Director of Magic is celebrating the incidence of a basic land over a particular shard’s tri-land, but he does have a point — both the dominance of Jund and the death of Blue have been greatly exaggerated.
The biggest story in this Top 8 is not the suppression of the Jund menace or the comeback of Blue, however, but the clash of two virtually Mono-Red decks in the finals. Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to Mike Flores over on his blog. Mike is on quite a tear with picking the winners in recent events. Not only did his “Naya Lightsaber” deck take down the crown at Worlds, but the “Barely Boros” deck he highlighted just after Worlds is virtually card for card the deck played by finalist Justin Souza in St. Louis. Mike seems to have his finger on the pulse of the Standard metagame lately.
It’s not surprising to see Red decks performing well in a field full of Jund and decks built to beat Jund. Jund itself is a control deck without any form of lifegain. While it is able to gain control of the game with card advantage from cascade and Blightning, it doesn’t have anything to bring it out of reach of burn spells short of actually killing the opponent, and the Red decks are built to do that quite a bit faster than Jund.
The real killers in these decks against Jund are the eight Unearth creatures — Hellspark Elemental and Hell’s Thunder. So much of Jund’s strength lies in its ability to control the board with its solid creatures and powerful removal, but the Red decks have the ability to ignore much of that axis of interaction. Hell’s Thunder flies right over Sprouting Thrinax and comes back for more. Hellspark Elemental may not fly, but he largely ignores Jund’s removal, and really doesn’t care if he charges right into a Putrid Leech — he gets the job done either way. On top of that, both cards — Hellspark in particular — are great Blightning fodder, softening the blow of one of Jund’s most powerful weapons.
Between these two Red decks, I think I prefer the Mono-Red one. Ajani Vengeant and access to Path to Exile are both certainly attractive, but Earthquake and Quenchable Fire seem like they give the deck a density of higher damage burn spells that the Barely Boros deck lacks. I’m also not entirely sold on Zektar Shrine Expedition, since it’s a weak draw outside of the opening hand and since it’s telegraphed by sitting in play it gives your opponent information about when to hold mana up for removal. I also like the Mono-Red deck’s sideboard plan of Dragon’s Claw for the mirror, although I do think that the plan that Mike Flores advocated (and which our finalist did not subscribe to) of sideboarding Baneslayer Angels in R/w may be a potential trump — but it’s likely that I could be a little biased in that regard.
Another sideboarding difference between these two decks that I find fairly interesting is Goblin Ruinblaster, or the lack thereof. Souza has the fairly typical 4 Ruinblasters that you see in the sideboard of most Red decks, while Wayne eschews them entirely. This got me to thinking about the role of a card like Goblin Ruinblaster in a deck like this. As a four-mana land destruction spell, Ruinblaster is mostly serving to keep the Jund deck off Broodmate Dragon while potentially get some damage in with the 2/1 hasty body. Is that really enough for a sideboard card in this kind of deck? What are you replacing that has significantly less impact on the game? Your goal against Jund is mostly to get some early damage in with creatures and then ride burn to victory, and I’m not sure Goblin Ruinblaster is really the card that you want for that plan, especially if you expect them to be sideboarding in cards like Jund Charm against you, which make the body that much less exciting. I think a card like Quenchable Fire would be better in that matchup in particular, though it’s possible the Ruinblasters are the sort of card you might rather have against the control decks that have been rearing their heads lately.
Speaking of control decks, not one but two copies of Grixis Control made the Top 8 of St Louis, and one of them — Robert Graves — was fresh off an impressive finals appearance at his state championships. Let’s take a look.
- 4 Lightning Bolt
- 3 Earthquake
- 4 Terminate
- 3 Flashfreeze
- 2 Negate
- 4 Courier's Capsule
- 3 Cruel Ultimatum
- 3 Divination
- 3 Essence Scatter
This deck is quite clearly reminiscent of the Wafo-Tapa control deck from Worlds that Patrick Chapin highlighted in his column not long ago. The major changes are a shift from Sign in Blood to Courier’s Capsule, which slows the card draw down a bit but makes it a little easier on both the colored mana and your life total. I haven’t played much with this deck, but the change is understandable. With a lot of instants in your deck, leaving the mana up to use Courier’s Capsule at the end of your opponent’s turn isn’t tremendously difficult. A lot of times you’re going to want to leave mana up in the early turns to counter anyway, and playing the Capsule on turn 4 with mana open to use it is only worse than cheaper Sign in Blood if your opponent plays something you need to react to that turn.
The deck’s basic plan is obvious — survive until you can cast Cruel Ultimatum. As a result the deck is literally nothing else but counters, removal, and card drawing, with a few win conditions thrown in for good measure. Essence Scatter and maindeck Flashfreezes serve as the first line of defense against Putrid Leech and Sprouting Thrinax, with Terminate and Lightning Bolt to back them up, and if you can stave off death long enough, your card advantage and big spells should win the day. That card advantage is provided not only by your card drawing spells but by the fact that the absence of any targetable creatures in your deck blanks so many of Jund’s best cards. Terminate, Bituminous Blast, and Maelstrom Pulse are all largely dead against you, although Pulse can obviously hit your planeswalkers or even your Courier’s Capsules if they’re feeling particularly frisky.
I’m actually hard pressed to find anything I don’t like about the card choices in this deck. I’m a huge fan of the sideboard, in particular the Vampire Nighthawks. Vampire Nighthawk, like Baneslayer Angel, is the perfect kind of creature to sideboard in an otherwise creatureless deck. It puts immediate pressure on your opponent and represents the threat of a huge long term impact on the game via lifelink if it isn’t dealt with immediately. Vampire Nighthawk in particular is so cheap that even if your opponent kept in removal against you and is able to destroy it immediately you don’t face a significant tempo loss. Malakir Bloodwitch is a great sideboard creature as well, often able to stop aggressive White decks in their tracks almost singlehandedly.
My initial thought was that the Double Negatives and Swerve in the sideboard were a little too cute, especially when the maindeck only has three Flashfreeze and the sideboard could easily hold the fourth, but I realized that Robert likely wanted to shore up his matchups against other control decks like Turbo Fog rather than go for a marginal efficiency upgrade against Jund. If you look at how many dead or incredibly marginal cards the deck has against creatureless or creature light strategies — 4 Terminate, 4 Lightning Bolt, 3 Earthquake, 3 Essence Scatter , and 3 Flashfreeze, assuming they don’t have targets — and it’s clear that you want to be able to bring in pretty much your entire sideboard against control. The card selection here lets Robert do just that, and that’s a sign of a well constructed sideboard. I’m still not sure I’m convinced that Swerve is better than, say, another Negate, but I suppose the blowout potential is pretty huge against both Blightning and Time Warp.
I expect the results of this Top 8 will have a big impact on the next StarCityGames Standard Open in Los Angeles. I’d be shocked if there weren’t a serious presence of both Red decks and Grixis Control. Since I’ll actually be playing in that event, I’m going to have to do some serious thinking about what the likely rise of these two decks means for me, especially in the midst of the sea of Jund that is sure to remain. I find it more likely that the two Red decks in the finals will have a bigger impact on the metagame than Grixis, so I’m tempted to work on some kind of U/W base deck with Wall of Denials since it shuts down half their deck while doing serious work against Jund, but that strategy leaves me with lots of dead cards against Grixis. Not to mention it’s never fun to be in a battle of control decks where your opponent has Cruel Ultimatum and you don’t!
Anyway, that’s it for this week, and I’m off next week, so everyone have a happy and healthy holidays and I’ll be back just before the end of the year.
Until next time…