The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Grand Prix: Kuala Lumpur

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Friday, March 19th – At Grand Prix: Kuala Lumpur, Brian Kibler ran with an exciting update to the Blue/White Control strategy, eschewing countermagic for a strong mana package and powerful x-spells galore. The strategy bore fruit, and Brian rode it to a Top 32 final placing. Today, he shares his tournament story, and updates the list for tournaments to come…

Back when I played on the Pro Tour in years past, I was never able to do much traveling. Most of my time on the tour was while I was still in college, which meant I would generally fly to an event, spend the weekend playing, and then fly back the morning afterwards. While I did get a chance to go to lots of cool places, I rarely had much of an opportunity to explore my destinations since I always had to get back to go to classes. These days, I have much more flexibility with my time, so when I looked at this year’s Grand Prix schedule, I briefly entertained the idea of traveling to every single one of them.

While I eventually decided that doing the full circuit was just too much — it would have involved flying literally around the world over four consecutive weekends this month — I felt like I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity I had to play the game and see the world, as the slogan goes. Since I’d never been to Asia outside of pro tours in Japan, and since it dovetailed nicely with another Grand Prix in Yokohama the following weekend, I decided I’d make the trip to GP: Kuala Lumpur.

I arranged to travel with a number of other American players who were making the trip — Sam Black, Brian Kowal, Alex West, and Mat Marr. Most of them decided to fly into Singapore and take a bus to Kuala Lumpur, while I ponied up the extra cash to fly directly into KL so I wouldn’t have to spend the extra time in transit. Little did I know that things wouldn’t quite turn out that way.

My itinerary had me flying out of San Diego Wednesday evening before the tournament, and connecting in Los Angeles before flying to Hong Kong and from there to Kuala Lumpur. I was supposed to meet up with Alex West on my flight from Hong Kong, and we planned to take a cab from the airport together and share a hotel room. My flight from SD to LA is without incident, and I board my flight to Hong Kong with the plan of staying up for the first half of the flight and sleeping through the second to help try to adjust to the time difference.

About an hour into my flight I hear an announcement that a passenger is sick, and if there are any doctors on the board could they please come forward. I bide my time reading Dan Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw” and watching the movie Up in the Air. It’s not long after I finish that movie and switch to a new one that there is another announcement. The sick passenger is in need of medical attention, and because we’re over 11 hours from Hong Kong, the flight is going to have to make an emergency landing in Vancouver. Neat.

An hour or so later we’re on the ground in Vancouver. Paramedics come onto the plane and take the sick passenger off and, presumably, to a local hospital. We’re on the ground for about an hour or so refueling, since we had to dump fuel in the air so the plane wouldn’t be too heavy to land. We take off again and after making it through The Invention of Lying, I decide it’s time to try to get some sleep. I pop a sleeping pill, but even with its help I can’t really seem to get comfortable in my awkward coach seat and get maybe a few fitful hours before I hear the announcement to prepare for landing in Seoul.

Seoul? Huh? What are we doing in Korea? Apparently we were unable to fully refuel in Vancouver or something, so we had to make yet another unscheduled landing. It’s obvious at this point that I won’t be making my connection in Hong Kong (despite having a 4+ hour layover scheduled) to meet up with Alex, so I turn on my cell phone and start digging for information on what hotel I’m supposed to be staying at and how in the world I’m supposed to get there. While we’re on the ground, the crew starts announcing rebooked connections, and once I figure out both what time it is and how long the flight is from Seoul to Hong Kong, it starts looking like even my rebooked connection may be pushing it.

After what seems like an eternity on the ground, and what I’m sure cost me at least $50 in international data fees figuring out where the hell to go once I got to KL, we’re in the air again. We eventually land in Hong Kong, and after disembarking have to brave a throng of people gathered around a table that someone decided should be put in a corner to get a new boarding pass for my connection — which is scheduled to take off in 20 minutes. Virtually all of the signs in the airport are in Chinese, but eventually I ask around and find out exactly where I’m supposed to go, only to discover that I have to go through security again in order to get to my gate. After running all the way from the security checkpoint, I make it to the plane just as they’re closing the doors. Phew.

I finally arrive in Kuala Lumpur, make my way through immigration and to the baggage claim. I’m waiting around by the carousel when I hear my name announced over the loudspeaker. I ask around to find out where that means I’m supposed to go and eventually find my way to an office where they tell me my bag didn’t make it on the flight. Lovely. Apparently it’s coming in on the next flight in a few hours, at least, and they can have it sent to my hotel. I give the lady at the counter the information I found online about the tournament venue and really, really hope that I got it right then get in a cab to make my way to the site.

Why was I so excited about traveling around the world again?

After over 30 hours in transit, I finally make it to the site, check into my hotel room and go in search of gamers. The rest of the American contingent is there doing some playtesting, along with Martin Juza. Before the trip we’d been mostly discussing possible updates to Mythic with some discussion of U/W, but it seemed that in the interim momentum had mostly shifted away from Mythic and toward U/W. Alex West was busy winning the last GP trial with a slightly modified version of Chapin’s San Diego deck, while the rest of us were looking at a version closer to the one played by Mike Hebky. I hadn’t had the chance to do much testing for the event, but I’d been intrigued by Hebky’s deck when I’d watched him play in the foil set side tournament at the Pro Tour where we split in the Top 4. I expected a lot of both Jund and Naya, and hadn’t found a satisfactory way to deal with Cunning Sparkmage out of Mythic. Juza had apparently been playing Hebky’s deck a ton on Magic Online and was very happy with it, so I got on board with the U/W plan pretty readily.

Going into the weekend, we’d heard that events in Kuala Lumpur are generally aggro heavy and control light, so we expected a lot of Jund and Naya. Initial reports from the grinders confirmed those suspicions, although three of the five were won by Mythic. The U/W deck Juza was promoting seemed like pretty much the exact list I’d want if I was building a deck specifically to beat Naya, and he insisted that the deck was a big favorite against Jund as well. His arguments made a lot of sense to me given the fact that the deck eschewed countermagic for removal and had Spreading Seas along with so many powerful spells. My experience with the UW deck that I’d played in San Diego was that with such a reliance on countermagic it was too easy to fall behind if you were on the draw or had a hand with too many lands that came into play tapped — not to mention just how bad countermagic tends to be against Bloodbraid Elf. Tap-out control seemed like a much better fit for a Jund and Naya heavy metagame.

Here is the deck I settled on:

After my epic journey, I hoped that a sleeping pill would help me beat the jet lag and get rested for the tournament, but it was not to be. I woke up several times in the middle of the night, though I couldn’t be sure what time it was because for some reason the rooms in the hotel were without clocks. Eventually I couldn’t get back to sleep at all and decided to go downstairs to find out what time it was at the very least. Turns out the rest of the American contingent was having the same trouble sleeping and had camped out in the lobby. We decided to make the most of being awake in the early morning hours and hit the breakfast buffet, then made our way up to the tournament site when it finally opened. After the player meeting, I spent much of the time during my byes wandering through the attached megamall looking for Red Bull to uncloud my brain. I sadly couldn’t find it anywhere and had to settle for Coke Lite for my energy fix.

Finally it was time to play! I lost most of my notes for the tournament, unfortunately, so this is almost entirely from memory. A lot of the matches run together in my head — I’m sure as you read along you’ll be able to figure out why…

Round 4: Naya

My tournament began on an inauspicious note — a double mulligan. My five card hand was decent, and he had a somewhat slow start while I played out a Chalice and some other mana. Day of Judgment wipes his board, Spreading Seas neutralizes a manland, and it looks like I might actually be able to recover, as I build up some more mana at a relatively healthy life total, but he draws a Ranger of Eos. I keep drawing lands and die.

My lack of serious testing left me in the dark about exactly how I wanted to sideboard, but I figured the most dangerous cards in his deck are Ajani Vengeant and Manabarbs, and Dauntless Escort and Qasali Pridemage are cards I want to be able to deal with (before they hit play, in the case of the latter), so I boarded in a few Flashfreezes and my fourth Day of Judgment for a Jace and two Spreading Seas. The next game I mulligan again, but despite that fact I’m able to easily contain his creatures and eventually land a Baneslayer, which gets the job done. Game three is much of the same — I land a Baneslayer and he can’t deal with it. He tries to fight back with Behemoth Sledge, but at that point I’m mostly figuring out how I want to kill him rather than if I can. Martial Coup deploys more Mark Herberholz tokens than he can deal with and I take the match.

Record 4-0, Naya decks: 1

One of the reasons that I felt this deck seemed so good is because of how powerful Baneslayer Angel is against Naya. Most of the lists I’ve seen have maybe two Oblivion Rings to deal with it, which means that you can often Oblivion Ring back and keep your angel. I had also expected a significant number of Jund decks to copy Goertzen’s winning list, which had only three Maelstrom Pulses to efficiently handle Baneslayer in game one. I probably should have realized that Jund is a deck that has been around so long that people already have their own take on it, so they’re less likely to copy a specific winning list. Over the course of the tournament I felt like Baneslayer was a very volatile card — it could win games spectacularly, but it could also very readily cost five mana and effectively do nothing to the board since it gets killed immediately. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

Round 5: Jund

I lose the die roll and keep a hand with Spreading Seas, three mana, Mind Spring, Path, and Jace. My opponent plays Dragonskull Summits on his first two turns and then passes with no land on turn three. I haven’t drawn any more land myself, so I Spreading Seas one of his Summits to keep him off Thrinax if he draws a Green source. He misses his land drop again and Bolts me rather than discard. I Mind Spring for one and finally find another land. He draws a Savage Lands and I stick Jace and fateseal him to try to keep him off land. He can only play a Sprouting Thrinax. Jace finds me a Baneslayer Angel shortly thereafter, and when he can’t remove it, the game is all but over.

I sideboard out 3 Jace, 3 Day of Judgment, and one Oblivion Ring for 4 Flashfreeze and 3 Celestial Purge. My sideboarding against Jund changed a lot throughout the tournament, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it right by the end — but again, I’ll get to that later. As for this game — my opponent mulliganed to five and I had a Spreading Seas to rub things in. I never took any damage and eventually just killed him with Colonnade.

Record 5-0, Naya decks: 1, Jund decks: 1

Round 6: Naya

The first game of this match was fairly simple — I Wrathed, then cast a Baneslayer. I won. Game 2, my opponent had a fairly aggressive start with a Wild Nacatl followed up by Ajani Vengeant. I dealt with Ajani with Oblivion Ring, but he had a Behemoth Sledge and Bloodbraid Elf to put the pressure on. I Day of Judgment and drop a Baneslayer at a precarious three life. He rips an Oblivion Ring and uses it on the Baneslayer. I play another, and only then does he realize that he could have killed me if he’d used his Oblivion Ring on mine to free Ajani and shoot me. His play ends up costing him the game, as Baneslayer does what she does and takes my life total out of reach and eventually ends the game.

Record 6-0, Naya decks: 2, Jund decks: 1

Round 7: Terry Soh with Naya

This match was featured and you can read about it in the coverage. Terry had particularly pressure-light hands in both games and was never really in either of them — I got to Martial Coup for 11 in game one, though, which was pretty sweet. In my experience, Naya really has to have an especially good draw or you have to stumble terribly for them to have a chance. Their best chance to beat you outside of that is to try to single threat you after your first Wrath with Behemoth Sledge. The fact that Sledge gives both lifelink and trample means that it can actually punch through after a Martial Coup and keep you from outright losing a race to the tokens or Baneslayer, but in my experience that’s often just too slow and gives U/W a ton of time to gain huge advantages with Mind Spring.

Record 7-0, Naya decks: 3, Jund decks: 1

Round 8: Jund

At this point jet lag is starting to seriously kick my ass, and I’m absolutely exhausted. After I stuck a turn 4 Baneslayer Angel and rode it to victory in the first game, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of heading to sleep undefeated . Alas, it was not to be. In the second game my opponent had pretty much the perfect draw, with Putrid Leech into Thrinax into Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning and I died. In game three, things were once again looking good, as I powered out yet another turn four Baneslayer and it didn’t die immediately — my opponent’s play was a Bloodbraid Elf cascading into Mind Rot. I had a Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge, which I used to turn his Forest into an Island and kill his Savage Lands in an attempt to cut him off from green mana, since almost his entire deck requires green.

I quickly realize the error of my ways when two turns later he fetches a second black and plays Malakir Bloodwitch. The game turns into a staredown between his Bloodwitch and my Baneslayer while he kills two of my Colonnades with Goblin Ruinblasters. I keep drawing lands, and he eventually draws a Maelstrom Pulse to kill my Baneslayer and crack in for eight. I Martial Coup, then he plays a Siege Gang Commander, which wipes out my tokens. I Martial Coup again a few turns later, and I get him down to one life when he plays another Siege Gang, which gives him exactly enough blockers plus removal to stay alive at one life, and then he kills me on the attack back with his Raging Ravines.

Record 7-1, Naya decks: 3, Jund decks: 2

As I sign the slip I’m chiding myself about my Spreading Seas play. With Baneslayer in play, it doesn’t matter that most of his deck requires green mana — all of the cards that deal with Baneslayer cost Black mana, and in the case of Malakir Bloodwitch, double Black. If I’d thought about the play at any length I certainly would have realized that and almost definitely won the game. So it goes — I knew jet lag was going to cost me somewhere. Of our group, only myself and Sam Black had made day two, but we were still feeling good about the deck. We got thai food in one of my many restaurants in the labyrinth-like mall and went straight to sleep.

Or tried, at least. Things didn’t go much better than the previous night, but this time I had my phone set to the local time so at least I knew that I was waking up at 3:30, 5:30, and finally 7am. I was still incredibly tired, but unfortunately battling waits for no man.

Round 9: Jund

My opponent in this round went on to make the finals… In the first game Blightning and some quick creature damage, despite the fact that his deck had Elvish Visionary over Putrid Leech, which was MUCH less scary when it came down on turn 2. After a Bloodbraid into Blightning I manage to I Martial Coup away his board. He Blightnings me down to three and Maelstrom Pulses away my tokens, which means that he doesn’t have a way to finish me in his hand. I Mind Spring my hand full and he peels a Lightning Bolt to kill me. The second game is anticlimactic, as I mulligan and keep a hand with an Island, Borderpost, and Knight of the White Orchid and never draw another white source. He Pulses my Borderpost and I die.

Record 7-2, Naya Decks: 3, Jund decks: 3

Round 10: Jund

Another Jund deck — seeing a pattern yet? This match was somewhat frustrating, as I felt like I pretty much once again lost to a topdecked Bolt. I had an early Knight of the White Orchid, which was holding off two Bloodbraid Elves with me at a healthy 17 life. I could have Wrathed away the elves and my Knight when I had six mana, but decided instead to wait a turn so I could Martial Coup instead. My opponent drew and bolted my Knight, which let him hit me with both Bloodbraid Elves and his Raging Ravine, knocking me to 7. The next turn I Martial Couped and started to take control, but I was low enough that he was able to play a Siege Gang and just kill me with the burn from the tokens. I don’t recall the details of the second game, but according to my score pad I died an inglorious death without having done a single point off damage to my opponent. I’m probably repressing some terrible memory of multiple Bloodbraid Elves.

Record 7-3, Naya decks: 3, Jund decks: 4

Round 11: Naya

I don’t recall what happened in the first game, but according to my notes it looks like I got completely run over in short order. The second game involved a whole lot of life gain, with Baneslayer on my side and double Behemoth Sledge on his. Eventually I added a second Baneslayer, and then added a whole bunch of cards to my hand with Mind Spring. Both of our life totals jumped up and down in huge increments until I closed the game out with Martial Coup for some obscene amount. Game 3 he had some early pressure, but I had Day of Judgment and Baneslayer.

Record 8-3, Naya decks: 4, Jund decks: 4

Round 12: Jund

This round, shockingly, runs together in my memory with the rest of the Jund decks I played against. From my life totals and the little recollection I have of the specifics, I won game 1 with Baneslayer, lost game 2 to Garruk, and won game 3 with Baneslayer again.

Record 9-3, Naya decks: 4, Jund decks: 5

Round 13: Jund

This round was somewhat depressing. After a long deck check in which I have to replace some of my sleeves due to markings from wear, I lose the die roll and get completely run over in the first game by essentially the perfect draw — Putrid Leech into Thrinax into Bloodbraid Elf into Blightning. In the second game, I mulligan, as does my opponent, and then I keep a hand of Knight of the White Orchid, two Plains, Chalice, Celestial Purge, and Spreading Seas. Then my opponent mulligans again, and then again — down to four. I proceed to draw nothing but blue spells, while my opponent plays a turn three Sprouting Thrinax, which I purge, turn four Bloodbraid Elf into Terminate for my Knight, and turn five Bloodbraid Elf into Sprouting Thrinax. Off of a four card starting hand. Seems fair, right?

Record 9-4, Naya decks: 4, Jund decks: 6

Round 14: Jund

And here it is — the last round of the tournament, and I’ve managed the play eleven rounds and face absolutely nothing but Naya and Jund. Now that’s a metagame for you! In the first game of this match, my Spreading Seas on a Savage Lands completely screws my opponent’s mana development, and I’m able to get Jace into play before he has and non-land permanents and keep him color screwed for the rest of the game. Game 2 is a similar beating, but in the other direction. Bloodbraid Elves and Blightnings rain down on my head and I die a horrible death.

Game 3 is actually pretty interesting. My opponent and I trade threats and answers for the first few turns until he lands a Putrid Leech when I’m still at twenty life. On my turn, I have the choice between casting Mind Spring for three or Baneslayer while he has Terminate mana open. I decide to play the Baneslayer, since I can get more value from my Mind Spring if I draw a land the next turn and I’m feeling pretty safe against just a Putrid Leech at full life. He Terminates my Baneslayer and drops Siege Gang. Suddenly I’m in a world of trouble, and things are even worse when I don’t draw a land off my Mind Spring the next turn and I’m going to be short of being able to cast Martial Coup for five the following turn. He smashes in with his team and I play a Knight of the White Orchid, putting me up to six mana. On his turn he activates his Siege Gang to shoot my Knight and I respond with Path to Exile, which he lets resolve before crunching in again. On my turn I Martial Coup for 5 and he shoots me with his tokens down to 1 life. His only play is a Goblin Ruinblaster, which I trade a token for and drop another Baneslayer. This one lives and manages to dig me out from death’s door to victory.

Record 10-4, Naya decks: 4, Jund decks: 7

Interestingly, the final game of the tournament got me thinking a lot about the place of Baneslayer in the deck. While Baneslayer wins games in dramatic fashion, it sometimes opens the door to losing them in dramatic fashion as well. If I’d just cast Mind Spring for 3 on my fifth turn, I would have drawn into the Knight of the White Orchid and Path, which would have given me the mana I needed to cast Martial Coup before my opponent’s Siege Gang was ever a real threat. By casting Baneslayer that turn, I effectively let my opponent Time Walk me with a removal spell. This isn’t a deck that can protect Baneslayer, and as a result a lot of games are literally cast Baneslayer and pray it lives so you win.

I mentioned this to some of my traveling companions, and Sam Black told me his sideboarding plan against Jund was to remove all of his Baneslayers and just win with Martial Coup and Iona. That plan made a lot of sense to me given just how many of my opponents were not only not sideboarding out any removal against me, but some of them were even bringing in Deathmarks and Doom Blades — which I can’t even Flashfreeze! This deck has enough powerful things it can do, I’m not sure it’s worth playing the Baneslayer “Do I win?” removal lottery at all — at least in a field of Naya and Jund. The fact that R/b just won the Grand Prix definitely makes Baneslayer more attractive, but even that deck has Deathmark and Doom Blade in the sideboard!

The card I want to try out in the place of Baneslayer is Elspeth. That might seem like a bizarre swap, but Elspeth does a few important things that Baneslayer does not. First of all, it’s one mana cheaper. That one mana is a big deal when it comes to defending yourself — Elspeth can come down on turn three with a Chalice and start pumping out creatures to defend you. If your opponent Maelstrom Pulses Elspeth you’re left with a token that can chump block. When you’re playing a deck that’s mostly trying to survive the early turns so it can start doing incredibly powerful things in the late game, that’s a big deal. Your life total is an incredibly precious resource. If you look back over my report at most of my losses to Jund, you’ll see that they came from getting burned out or run over by creatures. While Elspeth doesn’t dig you out of a life deficit quite like Baneslayer does, it helps keep you from ever getting there.

Elspeth also interacts much more favorably with your Wrath effects than Baneslayer does. Often playing this deck you end up in awkward situations where you have to decide whether to wrath or play a Baneslayer, or whether to wrath away your own Baneslayer against a superior board in case your opponent draws a removal effect. Elspeth acts much like an Icy Manipulator in old school U/W Control, holding off a creature and forcing your opponent to commit more to the board.

Lastly, and by no means trivially if this kind of deck catches on, Elspeth is the absolute best card against other control decks. It’s a legitimate game winning threat that you can play as early as turn 3, and generally most control decks have only Oblivion Ring to deal with it once it’s in play — and even then she leaves behind at least one Soldier. Lastly, she beats Jace in a fight. And on that note…

I suspect I’m the last person most people would expect to be advocating cutting Baneslayer Angel from a deck, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. And while I’m cutting sacred cows, I’m going to have to go ahead and tackle another one. Sorry, Patrick — if I were to play the tournament over again, I’d cut Jace as well!

Much like Baneslayer, Jace is an incredibly powerful card, but one that suffers from context. Jace simply doesn’t do enough against most of the popular decks in the format right now — at least not in this version of U/W. With four Mind Springs and four Martial Coups in your deck, you don’t need more powerful cards — what you need are cards that smooth out your draws and let you find the tools you need to make it to your degenerate end game. I couldn’t believe Brian Kowal when he suggested cutting Jace for Divination before the tournament, but now that I’ve played eleven rounds with the deck, I’m absolutely on board. Sorry, Mr. Mind Sculptor — I’m going to have to go with the Counsel of the Soratami on this one.

It sounds crazy, but I’m almost certain it’s correct. Divination fits drastically better on your curve, which is already quite top heavy with eight X spells. It’s easier on the colored mana, which is amazingly shaky for a two color deck with twelve dual lands. Jace certainly provides far more options than Divination does, but this is not a deck that is about finesse. This is a deck that is about the incredible raw power of big spells and Everflowing Chalice — which, by the way, may be the best mana accelerant artifact Standard has ever seen. A bad Mind Stone that card is not — it’s the real deal, and it enables this deck to do things that are completely obscene. I can’t wait to see what sort of Eldrazi monsters Chalice will power out.

While I haven’t played any Standard since the tournament ended, this is where I’d start in my testing if I were planning on going to GP: Brussels:

For the changes I didn’t mention above. I feel like 4 Borderposts was too many with how many nonbasics are in the deck and how much danger you can be in against Maelstrom Pulse if you draw two. I felt like the deck needed more real lands and I couldn’t fit them with 4 Spreading Seas, but I still wanted a similar number of answers to manlands, so I added a Tectonic Edge and went down to one Seas. Elspeth can also potentially block Raging Ravine forever, so that helps make up for the lost Seas as well. The single Iona is just to give the deck an absolute trump win condition. It’s possible the deck even wants two, but I think I’d rather play more cards that let you get to the late game instead. I’m not sure about Kor Firewalker as the best answer to R/b — I was thinking Wall of Denial might be, but it seems like you want some kind of life gain since there’s no Baneslayers anymore. In any case, this sideboard gives you the full fifteen cards to bring in against Red decks, all of which cost two mana, so I’d hope it could give you some kind of edge!

I’m very excited about the potential of this deck, and I kind of wish I was going to Brussels for another chance to play it. I may just have to make my way to a StarCityGames.com Standard Open soon to put it through the motions…

Anyway, that’s it for this week. I’ll be back next week with a report from Yokohama as I continue my travels across Asia!

Until next time…