Thirst for Knowledge – Searching for Treasure

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Wednesday, October 14th – The PTQ season is about to get rolling, and I’ve got my first one this coming weekend. Zendikar Limited has yet to disappoint, and I feel as though the sealed format in particular is incredibly balanced.

Allow me to set a scene for you. It’s a Saturday night (this past Saturday, in fact), and I’m sitting with my roommate Ben as we wait for our friend to stop by for a Zendikar draft or two. Sitting in front of us is a stack of Zendikar packs, and Ben gestures towards them and suggests we crack them for the heck of it. They’re his packs, but being a guy that can never turn down tearing open that packaging I quickly take him up on his offer.

I mention to him that the Ob Nixilis packs clearly have better rares, and I proceed to crack a Chandra Ablaze from the first one. He opens a Day of Judgment from a Nissa pack, which was without a doubt a fluke. Next, I pick up a second Ob pack and bust it open, revealing a Blood Tribute. Baffled, I try to form a conclusion based on the evidence: Ob Nixilis packs either have insane rares or Blood Tributes. Yes, that must be it.

But here is where things get a bit more interesting. There are two packs left — both featuring the angry mug of everyone’s favorite Red planeswalker. He digs into his, and I into mine. I jump to the back of the pack, and my heart skips a beat. Badlands. A white-bordered, upside-down, Revised Badlands.

With great distress, I shove the pack his way and begin to apologize endlessly. He takes it from me and his jaw literally almost hits the table. The subsequent jubilations last for a good time, but then we realize what had happened: I had stolen his chance to open a “loot” card. For me, it was indescribable. I’ve never even owned a Revised dual land (I borrow those when I play Legacy, you see), and I most certainly have never opened a pack with one inside. The card itself is only worth about $35 or so, but that doesn’t matter — I opened one. I understand it now, the thing I didn’t get when I wrote on the subject a few weeks ago. Opening one of these is not only totally improbable, but it’s also exhilarating for someone whose biggest pull to date was a Japanese foil Verdant Catacombs (again, also from this set) which I’ve already gone and sold. But that Badlands? That Badlands is never leaving my binder. There’s a story attached to it for me now, as well as quite a bit of sentimental value. I never thought I’d like a RB land so much.

Oh, that’s right — I have that Badlands. Ben gave it to me, bless his heart, considering that for him it was basically worthless. He knew I wouldn’t sell it, and neither would he have had he opened it himself. Once again, Ben, when you read this: I’m sooooooooo sorry.

The moral of this story is similar to what you’d expect: Wizards has done some real good here. I’ve been playing Magic for ten years now and just a few days ago I had one of “those moments” which each and every one of us hopes to experience as many times as he or she can over their Magic career — moments like winning a PTQ, winning your first FNM, etc. Opening an old card like that was something I never thought possible for me, since each year that becomes less and less probable. And even after I ordered four boxes of Zendikar, I firmly believed that I’d never open any of the treasure cards. I guess I was wrong, and I was also wrong about how great it felt. Great job on this one, Wizards. Honestly. I’d never suggest to you as a company that you do something like this again, as that takes away from what made this so special, but this is exactly the kind of thing that keeps a lot of players playing. For those like me who play to make the Pro Tour, practicing and training to win a PTQ is key. And, when I finally do, I’ll have my “moment” where it all becomes worth it. In the back of my mind, there is no “fire” or driving force that wanted to open a Revised Badlands. But once I did, I got it. I understand that for those who love the game like I do, there are other facets to it that I think I’ve ignored in the past. We play Magic with pieces of cardboard with painted pictures on them, which in and of itself is basically the gist of it. But when sentimental value can be placed alongside those cards, there is something greater at work. Call it genius, call it expert design — even call it magic (see what I did there?). Whatever you choose to call it, the bottom line is this: if opening a single card can make an actual emotional impact on a player, then the WotC employees are doing far more than just “a good job.” I truly hope that as many of you as possible get a chance to open one of these cards, and I hope that each one that does feels the same way about it that I do. And it won’t matter what card you open — all that will matter is that you got to see that upside-down card in your land slot. And you’ll understand.

In any case, as you can probably tell I’m in pretty high spirits. The PTQ season is about to get rolling, and I’ve got my first one this coming weekend. Zendikar Limited has yet to disappoint, and I feel as though the sealed format in particular is incredibly balanced. There were two MTGO PTQs in the past week, and I skipped both of them. Not because I don’t have “the fire” or anything, but because they were M10 sealed and not Zendikar. With a sealed pool of M10, I feel like I can easily be at a drastic disadvantage against an opponent merely based on the cards he’s opened in his pool as opposed to mine. That said, Zendikar’s true “gamebreaker” bombs are few and far between. Ob Nixilis, Rite of Replication, Hellkite Charger, and Rampaging Baloths (to name a few) are all ridiculous, but they’re very beatable. They’re not Fireball, and they’re not Garruk Wildspeaker. They’re not an Overrun for lethal when you’re clearly outplaying your opponent and miles ahead. I skipped the M10 sealed PTQs because, frankly, I don’t feel confident in paying 30 tix to “hope” my pool can stack up to the competition, whereas with Zendikar I can pilot a solid deck to the Top 8 without having to rely on luck. Did anyone else feel that way about M10, or am I alone here? I mean, I’ve only been playing Limited for a little over a year with kind of regularity, but in that time (and I’ve played a few older blocks on MTGO when they were available) I’ve never seen such a skill-less format than M10 sealed. Needless to say, I’m just biding my time until Zendikar is released on MTGO next month.

However, Limited is not my strength. I can play it better than most people in my area and I am confident that I could Top 8 a Zendikar PTQ, but writing about Limited is difficult for me because I still am learning how to tackle limited formats as opposed to the Constructed formats that I’m normally interested in. That being said, I’ll tend to shy away from Limited-focused articles in this column and instead direct my attention to what I know best. And, in the case of this week’s article, that will be Standard.

As most of you know, there was a StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia this past weekend, and the Top 8 consisted of five Jund decks. There were five Faeries decks in the Top 8 of the Grand Prix in Seattle last spring, and even that was astounding. So what does this tell us? Is Jund the best deck, or merely the most popular? Let’s take a look at the winning list:

Jack’s creature base is pretty much the standard setup, and nothing about his spell slots jump out. I really like Resounding Thunder, as it’s basically just a Banefire that you can happily cascade into without any ill effects. Puncture Blast was always better before rotation, but these days it seems like a natural fit over cards like Magma Spray and Burst Lightning.

The list itself looks very akin to the Jund decks that have been performing well on Magic League, all of which feature Garruk Wildspeaker as a means to gain advantage in creature-based mirror matches. I know I’d personally always prefer to cascade into an Ajani Vengeant off of a Bituminous Blast, but we have to make do with what the mana allows (we certainly can’t be as greedy as we used to be last block). Garruk is an interesting addition to Jund aggro that intrigues me because it generally solves two central issues that the archetype has now that Sygg is gone: continuous threats and lategame staying power. Garruk can spit out 3/3s each turn to keep the pressure on, and most of the control decks in the new fledgling format have a very hard time dealing with planeswalkers outside of Pithing Needle. Against aggressive decks you can use Garruk to pull you above card parity with your opponent by forcing them to trade their creatures for your 3/3 “cards.”

More interesting still, Garruk pairs very well with Sprouting Thrinax. While the number of creatures in the deck is pretty low for an aggressive deck on average, Garruk’s inclusion makes more sense when you consider that Thrinax splits into three guys when he eats it (though this dude admittedly seems to get hit by Path to Exile way more often than my Finks ever did). And to top it off, who doesn’t want to swing with Broodmate Dragons with +3/+3 and trample? I think it’s safe to say that Garruk will likely become a staple of this archetype moving forward, although I think a number higher than two is definitely the way to go. I find it hard to believe that you’d be displeased to see more than one of them a game, so playing three to four is how I’d go about things.

There are two other cards in the list I’d like to talk about from Jack’s list, but that will be a little later. First, let me say this: I sincerely hope that Jund’s numbers in the Top 8 of this event was merely an overrepresentation of the archetype, and not the actual metagame. I’ve only had the chance to play Standard once outside of testing, but the metagame at that particular event was fairly diverse in terms of aggro and control as well as Jund decks opposed to other aggressive strategies. The format was open, healthy, and fun. If Jund is going to put up numbers like these consistently, then Standard could get pretty awkward. The issue is, nothing about Jund makes it fundamentally better than other decks — it’s just very powerful. That is, each creature is way under the curve for its manacost, and cascade is busted enough that the deck becomes pretty forgiving to its pilot in that it can turn entire games around in the blink of an eye.

That being said, I think the best way to deal with the Jund deck is to play the Cascade Control deck I talked about last week. Here’s an updated list:

This list, in general, shouldn’t be losing to Jund. You’ve got all the tools to walk all over Jund’s strategy, and even more so you have lots of sideboard cards to ensure that they can’t play a fair game with you. The only card in their arsenal that you should be worried about is Goblin Ruinblaster, as your manabase is shaky at best and in order to beat the Jund deck you’re going to keep your lands in play. There isn’t a strong solution to that card outside of Thought Hemorrhage, but Hemorrhaging out that guy seems like the worst plan ever.

In any case, this updated list (with a new and better-functioning manabase) has a stronger game against Jund at the slight expense of giving up a few points here and there to the control decks. You don’t have Luminarch Ascension anymore for those match-ups, but Blightning is typically enough to carry a win all on its own. Hemorrhage lends a hand to this as well, and Needle is as efficient as ever against planeswalkers.

The metagame aside, I’ve been noticing a few trends from the new Standard. Certain cards have been popping up everywhere and performing far better than expectations. I’m going to talk for a moment about some of these cards, as I think it’s important to understand why these things are happening. The following list of “hits” are cards gaining popularity (or that have performed better in testing than initially thought) by the minute, not a list of the “holycrapbestcards.” For example, I shouldn’t need to put Bloodbraid Elf on this list for you to know that it’s popular and “better than anticipated.” I think we all know by now, yeah?

The first “hit” that I’d like to talk about truly needs no introduction: Blightning. Back when this card was spoiled, most players were overly excited about it. It was used here and there for a good deal of time, but it wasn’t until the last couple months of Lorwyn Standard that it truly shined. In the current format, it’s arguably at its very best. ANY aggressive deck that has access to these colors should be playing four, and I have a feeling that that isn’t changing any time soon.

Next up is Goblin Ruinblaster, the second card from the Jund deck I wanted to talk about. This was a card I initially liked, but only after playing with it more did I truly understand how good it was. Being able to totally cripple a control deck’s mana is such an alluring quality that I wouldn’t be surprised to see this card in maindecks as the format begins to age.

Chandra Nalaar is the third card I’d like to discuss, and she’s a doozy. Her new counterpart may be pretty awful, but the original Red planeswalker is probably among the top Red cards in Standard right now. Gavin Verhey Sphinx Control is a very good showcase of her power, in case you haven’t seen her in action yet. She kills anything relevant in the format and lives to tell the tale, and if left unchecked she’ll simply win the game for you. She’s a strong out to other planeswalkers and she doubles as a threat for creature-light control decks. It’s finally her time to shine, and I’d pick them up now before they’re hard to find.

Moving on, let’s talk about Bloodchief Ascension. It was clearly a popular card from the spoiler, but it wasn’t clear if it would have a role to play. Weeks later, I think it’s safe to say that it does. It’s woefully difficult to deal with for nonwhite control decks, and even against the ones with Esper Charm and Celestial Purge it can single-handedly win games if left unchecked. Aggressive decks that are running black can definitely consider this card for their sideboards, as it can totally hose control. Pair it with Blightning for SICK beats.

Lastly, Cruel Ultimatum. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Chris, you said these wouldn’t be totally obvious.” Well, I meant that. The thing is, Cruel’s power level was thought to have dropped due to the fact that almost every deck was aggro and the control decks were hard to come by. The truth, though, is that Cruel is better now than it was before. It still stomps all over aggro, and now it’s even easier to resolve in control mirrors. It is, quite simply, the best card in Standard, and I don’t think that will ever change until it’s gone. I simply can’t fathom a spell that I’d rather resolve against my opponents in this format that is somehow and in any way better than Cruel Ultimatum. Games still end on turn seven, folks.

Regardless of which of these cards (or many others, obviously) you’re taking advantage of, I think we can mostly all agree that Standard is a lot more fun now than it was before. There are more viable decks (or, well, there should be — I truly think the Jund decks in the Top 8 were an overrepresentation), there’s no Reveillark or Faeries, and our manabases have become modest again. Some strategies are vastly superior to other as always, but I don’t think the gap between the Tier 1 and 2 decks is as large as it has been in the past. Needless to say, States is only a little way away… and I’m pretty excited.

Next week I’ll take a look at the Pro Tour results (given that they’re available in time for my deadline), so check in to catch up on some Extended.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else