The Dragonmaster’s Lair – Standard at Worlds: Selecting My Deck

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Friday, November 20th – Brian Kibler brings us tales from the build-up to the World Championships in Rome, and shares his thought processes behind his Standard deck selection. With a healthy 4-2 performance on Day 1, will Sunday see Brian battling in the Top 8?

Hello from Rome! I’m writing this after the conclusion of the first day of the World Championships, as I apparently purchased an adapter that didn’t work with my laptop power cord and it took me ages to actually find one that worked. Six rounds of Standard are in the books already, and I posted a decent but unexciting 4-2 finish. I’m not going to talk about my results in this article, however — I’ll leave that for my tournament report. Instead, I’m going to discuss why it is that after weeks of testing Standard that I ended up playing Boros in Worlds.

Standard right now is an extremely polarized format. At one extreme, and what is certainly the format-defining deck seeing that over 30% of the field at Worlds played it, is Jund. Jund, despite what Cedric Phillips may tell you, certainly does not stink. Jund is a collection of extremely powerful and efficient cards that come together to form an extremely powerful and efficient deck. It has been public enemy number one since Lorwyn block rotated out of Standard and took with it many of the cards that were keeping Jund in check.

Jund is a powerful deck, and while it has efficient cards, it is not a deck that I would characterize as fast. It is capable of very aggressive draws, like Putrid Leech into Sprouting Thrinax into Bloodbraid Elf flipping Blightning, but most of its cards are inherently reactive. This is one of the idiosyncrasies of the Jund deck that makes it difficult to beat — in some games it is a slow, ponderous control deck edging out incremental edges until it buries you under the card advantage of cascade, and in others it is beatdown deck that pressures your life total with Putrid Leech and your hand with Blightning.

Is it any wonder why over 140 of the competitors at Worlds this weekend played Jund?

At the other end of the spectrum is Boros. Boros is not nearly so schizophrenic as Jund. It has one goal — kill you, and kill you quickly. Steppe Lynx is one of the most powerful attacking creatures of all time when backed up by fetchlands. I’ve been playing long enough to remember when Ernham Djinn was among the superstars of the Standard format. These days, it seems, a 4/5 creature costs just one White mana. While single-minded in its purpose, Boros isn’t a deck with only a single gameplan. If the cheapest Erhnam Djinn ever doesn’t take you down, the deck can reload with Ranger of Eos, setting up a hasty kill with Goblin Bushwhacker, and it backs all that up with some of the most efficient burn and removal the game has ever seen.

These two decks are the pacemakers for the format. For a deck to be a legitimate competitor in Standard right now, it has to be able to deal with the card advantage and absurd removal suite of Jund as well as the blistering fast beatdown of Boros. What is it that they say about what to do when you can’t beat them?

Try to beat them we did. Across the hotel room that I’m sharing with Ben Rubin here in Rome are strewn any number of proxied decks that are neither Boros nor Jund. I spent five hours on the flight playing various G/W Baneslayer decks against AJ Sacher playing Boros until an angry Italian gentleman in the seat next to us loudly complained about the sound of our shuffling. I like to think he was just trying to help me out, since despite constantly tweaking my deck and going so far as to include Wall of Reverence and Behemoth Sledge in my maindeck, I simply couldn’t find a version of the deck that could handle Boros. It is virtually impossible to defend against Steppe Lynx and Plated Geopede with blockers that aren’t Sprouting Thrinax, since nothing remotely near their cost is anywhere close to big enough to get in their way.

In our search for an answer, this is one of the decks we put together:

4 Vedalken Outlander
4 Wall of Denial
3 Sphinx of Lost Truths
4 Baneslayer Angel
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Earthquake
4 Divination
3 Ajani Vengeant
3 Oblivion Ring
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Arid Mesa
2 Terramorphic Expanse
5 Plains
5 Island
3 Mountain

The obvious goal of this deck was to stall both Jund and Boros with early creatures and removal until you could start casting Baneslayers and Sphinx of Lost Truths. Earthquake has tremendous synergy with the flying creatures and walls, and gives you excellent game against the Green decks that rely on lots of ground creatures and planeswalkers. When I showed this deck to Patrick Chapin, he asked me what the theory behind it was. I told him that the way I viewed the format was that it was one very heavily based on establishing board presence with both creatures and planeswalkers, and I felt like this deck was one that had some of the best cards against the best decks that would allow you to survive long enough to take control with some of the most powerful creatures in the format.

Would you believe this deck didn’t beat Jund? Look at that list. Four cheap Pro-Red creatures and four 0/8 flying walls with shroud to hold the ground seem like they should be good, and the fact that you nearly blank every Bituminous Blast in their deck certainly can’t hurt. But when you draw Vedalken Outlander to their Putrid Leech, you’re in trouble, and when they draw Blightning you can’t develop enough to play your big powerful creatures. Your mana is awkward, in large part because it’s so heavily slanted toward basic lands to avoid falling prey to the ubiquitous Goblin Ruinblaster.

Here’s another deck from earlier in our testing.

4 Knight of the White Orchid
4 Wall of Reverence
4 Baneslayer Angel
4 Felidar Sovereign
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Martial Coup
4 Path to Exile
2 Journey to Nowhere
3 Scepter of Dominance
4 Armillary Sphere
4 Emeria, The Sky Ruin
21 Plains

This deck was my favorite for a long time. The idea here is that because creatures are so good and the best decks are so resilient to Day of Judgment between Bloodbraid Elf, Sprouting Thrinax, and Ranger of Eos that the best control strategy is one that simply relies upon having individual creatures that dominate the board rather than removing the ones your opponent plays. Sure, you have one for one removal to avoid dying early in the game, but your overall game plan is to just keep playing huge life gaining monsters until one sticks — or none of them stick, but you get to seven Plains and Emeria to start bringing them back. The problem with this deck was that, despite the battery of removal and 12 lifegain fatties, you were simply too slow to beat Boros, as well as very vulnerable to the Eldrazi Green decks that broke onto the scene at the StarCityGames.com $5000 Nashville Standard Open. I looked at lots of possible sideboard tech, from Planar Cleansing to wipe out planeswalkers along with creatures all at once, but ultimately playing a deck that could very easily make no plays for the first three turns of the game just didn’t seem like it was going to work in a format where you can easily die by then. In particular, I hated just how bad Path to Exile felt in a control deck like this. It was alright if you had Knight of the White Orchid to capitalize on the opponent’s extra land, but both Jund and Boros are decks that can very easily take advantage of having an extra land so they can start playing Ranger of Eos or Broodmate Dragon that much faster. I cut down to two, and moved to put more Journeys and Oblivion Rings in the deck, but that just made the deck that much slower.

The last two control decks I debated were an Esper Control deck brewed up by Gabriel Nassif and Mark Herberholz and a four color control deck built by Patrick Chapin, which he, Nassif, Herberholz, and David Williams ended up playing in the tournament. The Esper deck suffered from simply requiring too many different cards against the different decks that were bad against the others — you could play a bunch of one-for-one removal spells and wraths and beat Boros, or you could play Wall of Denial and counters and beat Jund, but we couldn’t find the sweet spot in the middle. The four color control deck was more palatable, with Lightning Bolt, Earthquake, Ajani Vengeant, and Cruel Ultimatum all doubling as ways to just burn your opponent out when you didn’t need them for removal. I just didn’t feel comfortable playing a deck with precarious mana and virtually all nonbasics in a field sure to be full of Ruinblasters, so ultimately I did what I have done the last two pro tours the night before the event — audible to the deck Ben Rubin told me I should play.

For this tournament, that deck was Boros. I’d played a good amount of Boros in testing, and while I’d never been a huge fan of the deck, I couldn’t deny that it was extremely fast and capable of some very powerful plays. I felt like the tournament would be largely defined by Jund and people gunning for Jund, and many of the anti-Jund decks — like the various big creature Green decks — were soft to Boros. Michael Jacob was a huge advocate of the Hedron Crab Unearth deck, but I didn’t feel like I could learn all of the important interactions in the deck in a matter of hours the night before the tournament. Without another compelling deck to play that I felt comfortable with, this is what I sleeved up for Worlds.

The unusual things you’ll find about this deck are the lack of Kor Skyfishers and Teetering Peaks, as well as the Earthquakes in the maindeck. Earthquake is simply one of the best cards in the format right now, even in this deck. Since you can pump up your landfall creatures on your own turn, you can often use it as a one-sided Wrath of God that also deals damage to your opponent — or kills his planeswalkers, which is one of the many reasons the card is simply amazing against the Green decks. Terramorphic Expanse helps your mana, which can sometimes be awkward since you need a lot of colors to effectively use Ranger of Eos, and as a fetch land it can often serve the same purpose as Teetering Peaks anyway — if not better, since it boosts both power and toughness. The two Path two Journey split is a concession to the occasional need for instant speed removal for big creatures but with the recognition that Path is generally bad against the important decks. One of the best uses for Path in this deck is actually on your own creatures, whether to hit a blocked creature and boost your landfall men or to remove an early creature that your opponent Bolts to accelerate you to Ranger of Eos.

The sideboard is skewed largely toward Jund with nods to the mirror and the various anti-Jund decks that have popped up. White Knight fights past all of Jund’s creatures and lives through Jund Charm, making it a superstar in that matchup, though much worse if your opponents have Magma Sprays to complement their Lightning Bolts. Adventuring Gear and Mark of Mutiny are both outstanding against the big creature Green decks, since you can use any of your creatures to punch past their blockers with the former or just steal them to attack with using the latter. The rest of the sideboard is fairly straightforward. Baneslayer Angels come in for the mirror and against Jund after sideboarding since their deck is often full of Pyroclasm effects and you need a big creature to finish with over their blockers.

I would write more, but I had to give my borrowed adapter back, and my computer is quickly dying, so I need to email this off as soon as I can. Hopefully I’ll have another tale of victory to bring you next week in my tournament report!

Until next time…