I’ve had a lot of problems picking out a deck ever since Scars of Mirrodin rotated out last fall. Back then all I had to do (if I didn’t want to play U/W Delver for a tournament) was find something that felt good against U/W Delver and I would probably do alright at a tournament. Ever since Return to Ravnica entered Standard, I feel like I have been making suboptimal deck choices. I played Jund for a while and never really liked it. I always felt like I was drawing the wrong half of my deck. I then switched to U/W/R Flash and did alright, but I never had any amazing performances. Then Brad Nelson unveiled The Aristocrats: Act II.
I fell in love.
Lingering Souls and Blood Artist were my new Delver. I immediately made Top 8 of an IQ and followed it up with a ninth-place finish at a PTQ the next week. I continued to play some form of Aristocrats, but it never felt as strong to me as it did for the first couple weeks of Act II. I was losing to more and more cards, most notably Thundermaw Hellkite. As soon as I saw Kibler’s deck at the World Championship, I knew that I wanted to test it out. I sat down, played a couple matches against Jund and U/W/R Flash, and instantly knew that I had found my deck for the weekend.
Our trip to Salt Lake City was definitely an interesting one. Three friends and I planned on leaving to make the eight-hour drive down to Salt Lake in my car at 4 PM on Friday afternoon. We agreed to meet at a local card shop so we could grab the last couple cards we needed before heading out. Apparently, this was not meant to be. No one showed up until after 5 PM.
While I was waiting for everyone to arrive, I ended up talking to a friend about my plans for the weekend and how I was worried that my car might have problems on the way to the event. He seemed really interested in coming with us and offered us his car. I immediately agreed, as my poor old Honda Civic didn’t need any more miles on it. It was only once everyone finally showed and my car was safely stowed at home that it came out that the car we were taking was a much-too-small Mustang. Never one to turn down an adventure, I convinced myself that it would be a blast.
It was not.
Being the lightest out of everyone in the car meant that I had the "privilege" of riding in the middle for the next eight hours. This wasn’t pleasant, but at least the top rolled down. After just half an hour on the road we discovered two important things. 1) With the top down, it was incredibly cold while we were moving, and 2) the first fact didn’t matter because we were stuck in awful traffic and thus weren’t moving. After more than an hour in standstill traffic, we asked Siri for an alternate route. She happily obliged and took us on an hour-long detour that placed us about 500 feet further down the highway. (Along the way, she kindly showed us a moose). We finally ended up at our hotel at five in the morning; this left me with about two and a half hours of sleep before I headed off to battle.
Here’s the 75 I ended up running:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Strangleroot Geist
- 4 Hellrider
- 4 Thundermaw Hellkite
- 4 Flinthoof Boar
- 4 Ghor-Clan Rampager
- 2 Elvish Mystic
I chose the Gruul Guildgate because I noticed that I wasn’t able to consistently hit the double red I needed to cast Thundermaw Hellkite and Hellrider. The Guildgate performed very well for me all weekend since I was often able to play it on turn 2 after casting a Strangleroot Geist with a mana accelerant.
The Kessig Wolf Run was mediocre for me when it was still in the deck. It wasn’t unplayable because it is a very good Magic card, but I would rather be able to cast my spells. Other than that minor change, my maindeck was identical to Brian Kibler World Championship deck. I did, however, end up making a couple of modifications to the sideboard.
The first change I made was to drop the Gruul War Chants for Chandra, Pyromaster. All week long there were discussions about how inferior the War Chants were and how Kibler felt he should have been playing Chandra instead, so this was an easy change for me to make. Chandra, Pyromaster seems like what the deck wants after sideboard, especially since the Jund decks have been maindecking Lifebane Zombie recently. I, unfortunately, don’t think I cast her more than three times all day long. I remember casting her in the Top 4 and after reading her -7 for the first time sarcastically remarking how good it would be to copy Mizzium Mortars three times.
Garruk Relentless ended up in my deck mostly for The Aristocrats match up. That matchup can devolve into stalled board states where I am unable to cast Thundermaw Hellkites without killing myself because of Blood Artist triggers. Garruk picks off Blood Artists and then allows you to promote your mana dorks into dragons that close out the game. I also brought him in for grindy matchups where I would be able to use his -1 ability to search out more creatures. His -1 also works wonderfully with Strangleroot Geist, letting you trigger undying and then search up another creature with haste.
Zealous Conscripts was in my sideboard mostly for Jund, although it did come in handy when I played against the B/G Desecration Demon deck. Against Jund, it allows you to take a large creature or a planeswalker, which is usually enough to be able to close out the game. I never want more than five five-drops in the deck at the same time, so I would sideboard out a Thundermaw Hellkite in the matchups when I needed Zealous Conscripts.
I didn’t lose a single game when I resolved a Burning Earth. It did exactly what I wanted it to. I was able to get ahead and then use Burning Earth to lock my opponents out of the game.
Volcanic Strength is in the deck solely for the mirror matchup. I was hoping that I would be able to catch people off guard with the three in the sideboard, but Kibler had to ruin everything and post a list that also had three in the sideboard (#BlameKibler). I would never side in Volcanic Strengths against Jund since your game plan is to overload your opponent’s removal with enough efficient threats. Volcanic Strength will only end up giving the Jund player a two-for-one. I could also see bringing them in against a red-based Aristocrats deck. If you can bait out a Tragic Slip on another creature, it should be able to do a lot of work for you. It allows you to break the board stall that Lingering Souls and Blood Artists create.
I sideboarded out Strangleroot Geist and Mizzium Mortars often, leaning on Domri Rade and Ghor-Clan Rampager to deal with troublesome creatures like Olivia Voldaren. I’m not sure if this was correct, but I knew I always wanted to have at least three Hellriders, Thundermaws, and Domris in my list at all times.
I never boarded in Flames of the Firebrand, but there wasn’t any time it would have been better than a non-Elf spell. I think that Flames is much too slow for the mirror matchup, and I didn’t end up bringing it in for the mirror in the finals. Pillar, on the other hand, is amazing against the mirror, and I could see playing two in this deck.
After my mere two and a half hours of sleep, I dragged myself out of bed and headed down to the convention center in a daze. It wasn’t until at least three coffees later that I started to feel remotely like myself. No worries, however, as I was here to battle, and if I didn’t do well, I could drop, get some sleep, and come back the next day to try again. Fortunately, I didn’t have to drop because I played pretty well all day despite feeling exhausted.
Rounds 1 and 2 went very well for me. I played against a W/R Humans deck in round 1 that was very similar to the list that Craig Wescoe played at the World Championship. I curved Hellriders into Thundermaws, and that was enough. In round 2, against Mono-Black Control, I played a turn 3 Thundermaw that went all the way. I was on a roll until I got to round 3. I sat down across from my Jund opponent and subsequently got demolished. I don’t think it took more than eight minutes for me to be swept. It was really frustrating.
I cranked up my music and listened to "my song" on repeat until the next round started. ("Master of Art" by Laura Stevenson). This is a habit I picked up after reading an interview of Kibler’s where he talked about picking one song and listening to it to get in the zone. This has always helped me focus, and Saturday was no exception. I was pumped up and ready to play the best Magic I could. It didn’t matter how well I did as long as I was playing my best. I then proceeded to rattle off three wins in a row against Junk Aristocrats, Esper Control, and a R/G Aggro list running Burning Tree-Emissary.
In round 7, I had a feature match on camera against Eric Vasilevsky, who was playing Jund. I think Eric and I were both nervous about being in a feature match and subsequently made a couple of glaring play mistakes during our match. During our first game, he forgot a Thragtusk trigger, which I responded to by making a bad bloodrush with a Ghor-Clan Rampager on a mana accelerant and forgetting an undying trigger on my Strangleroot Geist.
I lost the first game against Eric and was looking dead in the second when a hasty Zealous Conscripts grabbed a rather large Scavenging Ooze, and we were off to the third game.
The only thing I wrote down about this game is "BURNING EARTH!!!" I managed to cast a Burning Earth while I had a Domri out and my opponent only had a Beast token. I then proceeded to miss an enormous amount of +1s and feared that I was going to perish to a Beast token even though I was locking my opponent out with two Burning Earths. Thankfully, I finally found an answer to that 3/3 that was bothering me, and I was on to my win and in.
I ended up beating a very friendly U/W Flash player in game 1 with turn 3 Hellrider into turn 4 Hellrider. He cast Supreme Verdict, and I followed up with another Hellrider to finish the game off. He unfortunately mulled to four, and I was off to draw into the Top 8.
The only problem with drawing into the Top 8 was that there was an X-1-1 who had better breakers than me and would be able to bubble me out if he won. I sat down and told my opponent that I had to play this round. I started off with a mulligan to five and got smashed. I then asked for the draw, and my opponent kindly agreed. Everything ended up going my way, and I was off to the Top 8 in exactly eighth place.
I sat down against my Top 8 opponent, who was playing Bant Hexproof. You can find the written coverage here.
I feel that I got very lucky because my opponent was never able to draw an Unflinching Courage. I don’t think I could have won if he was able to gain any large amount of life. And just like that I was in the Top 4.
My Top 4 and finals matches were on camera and can be seen here.
I feel like I played much better this time after receiving some great advice from my good friend Sean Inoue, who has a lot of high-level playing experience. He told me to remember "that someone watches you every time you play Magic and this is no different."
My opponent in the finals was also running G/R Aggro. While my list was fairly stock, his list adopted Volcanic Strength in the maindeck and Fog in the sideboard. I dislike the idea of taking good cards out of my deck for a card that is only really amazing in the mirror matchup, and I really dislike cutting a Domri Rade to do so. I did, however, love the idea of having Fogs in the board for the mirror. In the finals, my opponent had the Fog in hand but tapped out to play a Thundermaw. I’m pretty sure if he ever had the chance to cast the Fog, he would have been able to swing the game back in his favor.
Going forward, I think G/R Aggro and Jund will continue to be the best-performing decks. What I have struggled with the most when playing this deck is a recurring source of life gain like Bant Hexproof with its Unflinching Courages. I think that a deck with Unflinching Courage (or another way to gain life multiple times) and a favorable Jund matchup would do very well right now. If I had an event next weekend, I would start off by testing either a Bant Hexproof deck geared towards beating Jund or some sort of Naya list.
In the end, I was able to channel my inner Dragonmaster and walk away with a trophy. After having multiple Top 16 finishes in PTQs last season, it felt good to finally be able to win a tournament. And I’ll be blaming Kibler all the way to the next Invitational.