The Lessons of Grand Prix Pittsburgh

What’s there to say about Grand Prix Pittsburgh? There were no breakout decks. But we can learn some fine lessons about tuning your deck to the metagame.

What’s there to say about Grand Prix Pittsburgh? There were no breakout decks. There was very little breakout technology that we hadn’t already seen
before. In an environment where everyone is on an even playing field, what determines who makes day two? Who makes top 8? Who wins?

Most generalizations people make about Standard are misleading: “Splinter-Twin beats Caw-Blade.” “Aggro can’t win with Timely Reinforcements getting so
much play.” “Birthing Pod decks are horrible when you don’t draw Pod.”

There’s some truth hidden within each of these statements — but Standard players need to view them as challenges, rather than as facts or rules. More
realistically, it’s: “Splinter-Twin beats careless Caw-Blade players.” “Aggro needs a plan to beat Timely Reinforcements post-sideboard.” “Mulligan
decisions are hard with Birthing Pod decks.”

There was one Splinter-Twin deck in the top eight of Pittsburgh. Matt Nass had been developing a reputation as an expert with the archetype, and it’s
telling that he should be the one in the top eight while all of the other pilots fell short. Grim Lavamancer, Gitaxian Probe, and Twisted Image aren’t
unheard-of cards for U/R Twin, but the numbers and maindeck/sideboard splits in Mr. Nass’s deck hint that its designer put in plenty of work
fine-tuning. He knew exactly what he wanted his deck to do for him.

U/R Twin has advantages over Caw-Blade that seem nearly insurmountable to me, as someone who isn’t an expert on the matchup. Most Caw-Blade decks have
only a few removal spells to keep Grim Lavamancer and Deceiver Exarch off the board. This particular Twin list has plenty of answers to Spellskite, as
well as a whopping ten permission spells! All lists have an endless number of cantrips to ensure that they hit their land drops and quickly assemble
the combo. Perhaps the biggest advantage, though, is that Twin operates largely at instant speed while Caw-Blade needs to cast creatures or
planeswalkers at sorcery speed in order to pressure the opponent.

I’d be curious to know how many Caw-Blade player Matt Nass beat over the course of Grand Prix Pittsburgh. In the end, though, it was none other than
Caw-Blade that knocked him out of the tournament in the hands of Yuuya Watanabe, undeniably one of the best players in the world. You can be sure that
it wasn’t some secret sideboard card that allowed Watanabe to win — Matt Nass wouldn’t be caught unprepared anyway. It was simply tight play and
knowledge of the matchup that allowed him to come out on top, when many other Caw-Blade players couldn’t.

Anyone who walked around the room a little could see Mono-Red in any bracket, from the very bottom to the very top. There’s a stereotype that Mono-Red
is a mindless deck to play — but that’s not true. Some wins are straightforward and easy, but there are plenty of games that require careful set-up.
Florian Pils (and Harry Corvese, whose decklist was similar)
found room for all the power hitters of the archetype, but also clearly had Squadron Hawk and Timely Reinforcements in mind when he built his deck.

The traditional anti-red cards of the format are relatively ineffective against Hero of Oxid Ridge, Chandra’s Phoenix, and Sword of War and Peace. The
red players who came unprepared to fight Timely Reinforcements were left in the dust by Pils and Corvese, who focused on what was important for their

Standard is a format where there is no secret deck choice or sideboard card that can do the work for you. There are dozens of decks that can
win a tournament, but each one requires its pilot to know play well and know the ins and outs of every matchup. Within each archetype at Grand Prix
Pittsburgh, the cream rose to the top. It’s a trend in Standard which is sure to continue.

My Story

The night before the tournament, I walked over to a table where Gerry Thompson and some of his groupies were hammering out the finishing touches on
their decklist. Not wanting to interrupt, I sat down at the head of the table at the far end, opposite Gerry. I was about to open my mouth when the two
guys nearest him began arguing. One of them said to him “Gerry, last week I played Caw-Blade with four Ponders and it was great! Ponder is better than

The other guy said “No! I tried Ponder also, but Preordain is much better!”

I watched Mr. Thompson, after some deliberation, move his pen to his decklist and say “Okay, we’ll split them: two Ponders and two Preordains.”

The first guy picked up his pen, but the second hesitated. He said “Wait, that can’t be right. Surely one is better than the other. If we decide its
Ponder…” Then he sighed. “We should play four.”

Gerry, who’d never made a mark on his decklist, gave his ruling: “It sounds like you really care about building the best possible deck, and won’t
settle for second-best. If you say Preordain is better, you must be right. We’ll play four.”

When the two were finished, I found my voice and asked, “Gerry, how come you change your decklist every week? After all, you got third place at

StarCityGames.com Open: Boston

last week! Aren’t you happy with what you played?”

He explained to me, in so many words, that there’s always room for improvement. What’s more, everyone else changes every week, so even if your deck had
been “perfect” for one tournament, you have to change also.

I didn’t argue, but it struck me as strange since my own philosophy tends to be so much different. I strive towards perfection; I want to find the best
possible list and stay there. I guess the question is, what is perfection anyway?

It would be another day or two before I fully appreciated Gerry’s tidbit of wisdom.

This is the deck I played at Grand Prix Pittsburgh. After having a good showing with the deck at Nationals, I continued
working hard on it on Magic Online. When I found Sword of War and Peace, I hoped I could take Sarkhan Jund from being just “one more competitive
option” to something truly great.

The Sword was great, and I wouldn’t change a single card from this decklist. I had found the “perfect” way of doing what I was doing.

The problem was that what I was doing wasn’t good anymore.

As I outlined in my article, the original idea behind Sarkhan Jund was that green and black were the best colors to attack the metagame. Obstinate
Baloth and Creeping Corrosion covered my bases in the aggro matchups, while black removal and Memoricide were the best cards against Valakut and
Splinter-Twin. You’ll notice that the decklist I played in Pittsburgh has no Creeping Corrosions in the seventy-five, and that I’m playing the bare
minimum number of black removal spells, mostly because I need them to kill my own Abyssal Persecutors.

Perhaps more importantly, Abyssal Persecutor was unstoppable when I first built this deck, but isn’t anymore. Dismember, at the time, had been the
removal of choice, and most decks were simply unprepared to handle a 6/6 flying, trample, black creature.

Much has changed in the last month. Tempered Steel is no longer a big deck. Spellskite, Overgrown Battlement, and Dismember are less common. Oblivion
Ring, Day of Judgment, Mirran Crusader, and Clone effects are all common ways for people to fight Abyssal Persecutor.

Deep down, I knew that I needed to reconsider Abyssal Persecutor, and the way I had to warp my deck and mana base around it. However, cutting
Persecutor didn’t just mean finding a replacement for those four slots — it meant tearing the deck apart and starting more or less from scratch. With
the Grand Prix fast approaching and my focus divided between several formats, I decided to stay the course and hope that my solid win rate on Magic
Online was a forecast for a solid performance in Pittsburgh.

What happened was I showed up with a metagame deck that couldn’t play the metagame. Standard is a particularly hard format because it’s wide-open — not
only in the sense that a huge variety of decks are playable, but also in that there’s great flexibility within each archetype. It’s hard to find a
reliable threat when your opponent has an unpredictable mix of permission, Dismember, Oblivion Ring, Day of Judgment, and chump blockers. Memoricide is
a good answer to Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin, but can’t come in against a deck that also features an alternate Birthing Pod or control game plan.

As an example, look how different the three Caw-Blade lists were in the top eight:

Max Tietze had no maindeck answers to an Abyssal Persecutor, but the card is downright awful against Joel Larsson. Against Mr. Tietze, I’d need a
plethora of black removal to avoid dying to Hero of Bladehold — but against Yuuya Watanabe, Doom Blade would likely trade for half of a Blade Splicer.

The first step in building a midrange deck is to identify the attackable traits of the metagame. And I did that with Sarkhan Jund…a month ago.

The lesson I learned the hard way in Pittsburgh is that you need to be constantly, and realistically, reevaluating your rogue deck. Right now, I
personally can’t pick out any weaknesses that run throughout all of Standard, so I should have picked a deck that was more powerful in an objective

My brother jokingly said to me before the tournament, “Well Reid, your deck sucks, so you have to play really well to make up for it.” I’m still much
too proud to accept the word “sucks” being used within a hundred miles of Sarkhan Jund — but his comment holds true for any rogue deck. Building and
playing a rogue deck is great, and I’ll do it again the first chance I have. However, for a serious player it’s a privilege that needs to be earned by
hard and thorough work. There’s no set amount of time required to build a deck because you simply have to work until it’s done, and you can’t cut
corners or settle for anything less than the best.

Grand Prix Pittsburgh was a disappointment for me, but it also renewed my enthusiasm and gave me more faith in Magic. This time around, I didn’t work
hard enough and I paid for it. The top eight was a different story. They weren’t people who stumbled upon a secret deck, or who got enough lucky draws
and matchups to find themselves on top. It was the players who knew their decks and played them well who performed best.