The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Investigating the Philly $5K

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Thursday, October 15th – Brian Kibler is currently living large in Austin, preparing for the upcoming Pro Tour. While Extended is understandably off the article menu, today bmk discusses the results from the Standard $5000 Open. He examines the metagame as it now stands, and shares his idea of a mostly Mono White Control strategy.

It’s midnight on the Tuesday before the Pro Tour, and I am in Austin. I’ve been here since Monday night in a house I rented alongside Patrick Chapin, Ben Rubin, Gabriel Nassif, Mark Herberholz, Michael Jacob, Matt Sperling, Paul Rietzl, and David Williams. Quite the crew. The house itself is huge, with a multi-level pool area, hot tub, BBQ pit, and a fancy dining room with a table that’s just perfect for drafting. I came here from a week in Las Vegas, where I spent every night out on the town without a Magic card in sight. Since I arrived in Austin, though, almost every waking moment has been consumed by gaming. Rough life, I know.

Unfortunately I can’t tell you much about what’s going on here. Well, I can tell you that we’ve already gone through half a case of product in drafts (and that we haven’t opened any priceless treasures — so unlucky!), but stories of our Extended preparations will have to wait until next week. This week I’m going to take a look at the results of the recent StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open, and consider how to attack that kind of field.

First, the relevant lists:

It may seem like we’re in for an era of beatdown dominance after the recent reign of control, but appearances can be deceiving. Beatdown decks have traditionally been extremely powerful at the beginning of a format prior to players learning how to combat them. We’ve seen the same thing in almost every format for years, so rather than think that now things are so different and that control is dead, we need to look at the common themes of the beatdown decks and how control can handle them.

The most obvious common theme is Bloodbraid Elf. The winner and four other players in the Top 8 all played Jund with the Honolulu-defining hasty cascader. These decks all look very similar, playing the Putrid Leech, Blightning, Sprouting Thrinax, Maelstrom Pulse, and Lightning Bolt to cascade into while going big with Bituminous Blast and Broodmate Dragon. The only real points of contention are the presence of Garruk Wildspeaker, Great Sable Stag, Resounding Thunder, and Terminate. As the most popular deck from the previous block season, it should come as no surprise that Jund is an early front-runner, and really not even that surprising that the deck had such a dominant performance at the first major tournament in the new format.

Jund is a deck that can attack on multiple angles. It can put forth a fast offense, dominate the board with sizable creatures, and win through the card advantage of cascade and Blightning. Its vulnerabilities are against decks that can blank or dramatically reduce the value of its removal as we saw with Five-Color Control in block. It’s a deck that is hard to keep in check with removal spells because so many of its cards represent multiple threats, like Sprouting Thrinax, Bloodbraid Elf, and Broodmate Dragon.

The deck in the Top 8 that I find most exciting against is the Boros Bushwhacker deck. At first glance, the deck just looks like every Jackal Pup in the format, along with 8 Bolts and 4 Paths, but the deck is far more complex than that. The deck is capable of churning out a massive amount of damage very quickly with its extremely high power-to-cost creatures. Steppe Lynx and Plated Gigapede in particular deal lots of damage with their landfall triggers combined with the deck’s 8 fetchlands.

The real card at the core of this deck is clearly Ranger of Eos, which is what makes it somewhat shocking to me that the list contains only 3 copies. Once the deck has softened up the opponent with its early beatdown, Ranger of Eos can search up the namesake Goblin Bushwhacker and threaten hasted lethal damage even past Day of Judgment. Ranger is much like this deck’s Bloodbraid Elf — it provides additional threats that give the deck remarkable resilience to effects that would traditionally be a problem for beatdown.

Neither of these decks can be attacked effectively by a traditional control strategy. It’s nearly impossible to beat Bloodbraid Elf and Ranger of Eos with counters and mass removal — you’re just going to lose the attrition game. Control decks these days need trump cards. Cruel Ultimatum is one such trump card, but I haven’t seen a deck built around Cruel Ultimatum that seems to have the tools necessary to survive long enough to play Ultimatum, or at least to be in a winning position once Ultimatum resolves. One of my thoughts was to try a Mono-White Control deck, much like the list in the Top 16 played by Michael Lapine, but there’s the little problem of the Vampires deck.

Overall, I don’t think the Vampire deck is as powerful as Jund, since it can’t establish a board presence nearly as fast and doesn’t have the same kind of tools to catch up. It does have the incredibly powerful Mind Sludge, however. Unfortunately for our fanged friends, while Mind Sludge is powerful when it resolves and you’re not really far behind, your creatures are outclassed by Putrid Leech and Sprouting Thrinax on the board, and you need to get to five mana to fire off Sludge, a proposition which can be complicated significantly by Blighting. Most of your deck that isn’t Mind Sludge is just weaker than the rest of the Jund cards, but you do have Mind Sludge and Malakir Bloodwitch to give White decks fits.

So by the looks of it, countermagic and sweepers aren’t going to give us the control we need in this format. Slower control decks without the ability to defend themselves from Mind Sludge or establish a dominating board position prior to it being cast won’t be able to compete with Vampires. So where is the answer?

The most exciting direction I’ve seen for control decks right now was hiding at 15th place at the SCG $5K, piloted by none other than PTQ endboss and Facebook phenom Calosso Fuentes:

This deck has a lot I can get behind. Luminarch Ascension is the sort of card that can put the game away very quickly if it gets online. It has subtle synergy with the army of planeswalkers in the deck, since your opponent is forced to choose between denying you a counter on the Ascension and dealing with Ajani and friends. The planeswalker package (not to mention Ascension itself) gives you a lot of game against any kind of control decks, while your removal package of 4 Lightning Bolt, 4 Path, 4 Day of Judgment, 2 Martial Coup, and a single Volcanic Fallout should, in theory, give you a lot of play against creature decks.

Unfortunately, I think the reality is that too much of your deck is too vulnerable to what Jund is doing naturally. While a defense based on planeswalkers and Luminarch Ascension seems like it might be difficult to handle, the combination of Blightning, Lightning Bolt, Maelstrom Pulse, and Bloodbraid Elf can all mess with your plans because much of your defense is just vulnerable to damage. Playing a creatureless deck is always attractive in theory because you can blank your opponent’s removal spells, but when the most common removal spells can also pressure your other permanents, the reality becomes much less exciting. If this deck can be tightened up against Jund, I think it would be something I’d really like, but as it stands I think you’d be better inclined to look elsewhere.

I mentioned Michael Lapine’s list earlier, and while I certainly think it’s troubled because of its vulnerability to Mind Sludge, I think it seems like it’s doing some things right. My love for Baneslayer Angel is no secret, and I think Her Majesty the Queen is an excellent choice for the kind of permanent based defense that can withstand a creature rush. I’m not sure Emeria is the right choice for protection, however — seven is just a lot of Plains, and it feels like your problem is more getting to that point than winning once you’re there. I was thinking something more like this:

It’s possible this deck isn’t ambitious enough, but both Guardian Seraph and Baneslayer Angel seem like cards that can cause significant problems for beatdown decks, especially in combination with Luminous Ascension and backed up by a suite of removal. Hindering Light does double duty here, protecting you from Blightning and Mind Sludge as well as your Baneslayers, Ascensions, and Elspeths from removal spells. Hindering Light is certainly slower than Glen Elendra was, but we saw how powerful the “protect the queen” strategy turned out to be last season.

My biggest concern here is that there isn’t any real card draw — it’s possible the deck needs Armillary Sphere instead of a few lands, in which case you could fit a basic Island. It’s also possible that the deck wants some number of Iona, since landing one is close to game over against Jund in any game that goes long. I really like the Devout Lightcaster / Celestial Purge / Hindering Light package against both Jund and Vampires, since it can give you a lot of time to get Ascension and Elspeth online. Ascension alone seems like it can give you a lot of action against control, and given the lack of control decks in the apparent metagame, that’s not really a matchup I’d be aimed for right now. It’s possible the deck wants some Wall of Reverence against the Boros deck, but this is about where I’d start.

That’s all I have with you for this week. Next week I’ll be back with stories from Pro Tour: Austin. If you’re at the Pro Tour, feel free to drop by and say hello.

Until next time…