Thirst For Knowledge – Valakut in Standard

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Wednesday, December 16th – A few weeks ago, the RG Valakut deck had been tearing up the MTGO scene and had shown up with at least one list in most of the Standard top decks. Why? I personally feel like that deck might be one of the format’s best-kept secrets…

Considering that it is finals week here at the university, it should come as little surprise that I haven’t played as much Magic lately as I maybe I’d like. Still, I have a deadline, and so I set out looking for a solid topic to write about this week. I decided to start with the Decks of the Week for this past week on MTGO, but that was as far from helpful as something could possibly get. One of the queues had nothing but Jund decks and a single RWU control deck. I mean, really? That wouldn’t make for a very interesting article, now would it?

Instead, I decided to go back a bit further. See, a few weeks ago the RG Valakut deck had been tearing up the MTGO scene and had shown up with at least one list in most of the Standard top decks. Why? I personally feel like that deck might be one of the format’s best-kept secrets, as I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that they were considering it for States, but yet no one ended up playing it. Granted, it’s not a secret if everyone knows about it, but since no one was taking it to any events the deck managed to indefinitely stay under the radar almost entirely. It’s somewhat of a shame, too, since the deck is really very strong.

Before I get ahead of myself, here’s a sample list like you’d see on MTGO:

The idea is fairly simple: ramp into Mountains and burn them out with Valakut’s triggered ability. You’ll generally want two copies of Valakut in play in order to win in a reasonable amount of time, and so Expedition Map is more or less essential in making that happen. In general, it’s a pretty poor card, but as just about the only way to search for a specific nonbasic in the entire format it’s a necessary evil. You’re going to want to punch a wall whenever you cascade into it, but otherwise it does its job well enough and you’re going to want to play at least three of them.

I began my testing of this deck a week before States, and a list similar to this is what I started with. I noticed that Jund wasn’t really that bad a match-up, as if you kept them off Broodmate mana with Ruinblaster that you almost always had enough time to set up the Valakut kill. Admittedly, if they drew multiple Blightnings you typically couldn’t win, but it’s not like that’s any sort of surprise — most decks can’t beat multiple Blightnings from the Jund deck. The control match-ups weren’t so bad either, with the only hiccup being that Harrow was a pretty large liability in crucial turns, oftentimes forcing you to sac your green sources in an attempt to not be set too far behind on Mountains (or Valakuts!). The good news, though, is that Harrow is an instant, so forcing it through isn’t too difficult.

The Boros match-up was atrocious. Literally, I could hardly ever win game 1, and in games 2 and 3 I was still a complete dog. Lightning Bolt sure is sweet, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only four cards in my deck. The list I tested initially did not have Pyroclasm and Earthquake, but I suspect even if it had I would still have experienced problems. The issue against the Boros deck is not that you need to generate a superior board state and maintain it, but rather that you need to not die until turn 7 or so. As a solution, a team member on Team Revolution suggested Sparkmage Apprentice, and that seemed really good to me. It could nuke a Lynx or a Geopede, and stick around to block a turn later. Most people I talked to about it suggested that I should probably just stick to Pyroclasm effects instead since they killed all he creatures in the Boros deck (save Skyfisher, which may or may not actually be in said Boros lists these days), but Pyroclasm doesn’t kill all those creatures until after they’ve spent a turn in play, and while that’s kind of a “duh,” it basically means that with Sparkmage I can kill a threat they play and soak up 5 or more damage the next turn at the cost of killing an additional creature or two.

Sparkmage tested very, very well, but it was such a bad card in other match-ups. I’m not going to suggest that it’s a bad idea to play cards specifically for certain match-ups if the match-ups in question were indeed your worst ones, but in this case I felt like if I played less narrow cards like Earthquake and Pyroclasm that I could use them in more match-ups and have an overall stronger sideboard. Pyroclasm was the card I knew I was keeping no matter what, but I chose Earthquake in the end over Sparkmage because I wanted to be able to bring it in against decks besides Boros.

Goblin Ruinblaster was a card that I found to be really, really lacking in the maindeck. I loved it out of the sideboard, sure, but main it felt like I would draw it in so many match-ups where it just was a do-nothing. Granted, it was a hasted, 2/1 do-nothing, but how often have you played a 3-mana 2/1 haste guy with no other abilities in your Magic career? I’d wager very few times. That being said, I moved it to the sideboard. I also was unimpressed with Oracle of Mul Daya, but I kept two in the maindeck because when she’s good, she’s good. I was okay with cutting her entirely, though, because often she’d just be a 4-mana 2/2 that gave my opponent information. Brilliant. Regardless, for the time being, she made the cut.

What you’ll find with this archetype is that in the games where you don’t have Valakut, you simply can’t win. You must have it to do much of anything, because otherwise you’re playing a mana ramp deck with nothing to spend its mana on. Siege-Gang Commander is a reasonable threat, sure, but his purpose in the deck is for blocking, not swinging. The one thing I always felt the deck lacked was a reasonable Plan B, but the options are few and far between. I’ve seen Jund versions with Broodmate Dragons, Naya lists with Baneslayers, RG lists with Hellkite Chargers or Bogardan Hellkites, and I’ve also seen Rampaging Baloths. Of those, the Baloths seem the strongest, but they’re also very difficult to cast. There were a lot of times where I’d have to decide between getting a second Green mana for Baloths or getting closer to enough Mountains to get Valakut online, and that’s a decision that was consistently awkward. Bogardan Hellkite is strictly worse in the abstract, as he’s totally worthless as a means to race a Baneslayer Angel and his effect just isn’t as powerful, but when you’ve dinged off 10 life or so with Valakut and Bloodbraid Elf, it becomes a tad more realistic as a win condition.

When all was said and done, here was the list I arrived at:

Grazing Gladehart is a superb sideboard card against aggressive decks, and one that was used a great deal on MTGO, but unfortunately I ended up killing it off most of the time with my own Pyroclasms. Granted, it’s reasonable to use Pyroclasms early and then play Gladeharts later in an attempt to get myself out of burn range, but that will still generally leave my hand filled with lots of sweepers that I don’t want to play. Long story short, I went with sweepers over the lifegain utility creature.

Goblin Ruinblaster is of course for Jund decks and control strategies, but it’s the Banefires that need special attention. They were Spire Barrages, as that was a card that I could use to beat Baneslayer Angels and also throw at the faces of control players, but I realized that rather than using them as pseudo-Banefires, they could just be Banefires. I could use them to kill Geopedes and Lynxes early, Baneslayers in the midgame, and point them at the head in the lategame. It really did everything I wanted it to do, even beat up on Turbo-Fog!

Moving forward, it’s probably reasonable to cut Oracle of Mul Daya altogether and play the fourth Map and Ranger, as both of those cards are probably better on average than the Oracle is. For every time you chain two lands together off the top for the occasional “oops I win” blowout, she just reveals a Bogardan Hellkite and you die a little bit inside. I tend to dislike cards that can be explosive but are not guaranteed to, which would probably explain why you haven’t seen many Lotus Cobra decks from me in a quite some time.

All in all, the archetype is very solid. You’ve got a pretty strong Jund match-up based solely on the fact that you are typically faster than they are, and you’ll usually beat them if they don’t wreck your hand with Blightnings and Mind Rots. Boros is drastically better after sideboarding, but you’ll never win a game 1. The control decks are very beatable if you play Harrow intelligently and focus on the Valakut plan, and with a sideboard filled with sweepers it’s not too hard to guess that beating aggro decks isn’t that challenging. Dredge is nigh-unwinnable, as you basically have to hope you’re faster than they are, but most of the time they’re going to be a turn or two ahead. Relics in the sideboard could help shore that up if you needed the extra security.

Alright, so that’s a slower Red deck. What about the classic Red deck? You know, the smash-face one? Here’s the newest iteration of that deck:

Alright, so Ball Lightning is a bad creature. Quenchable Fire is a bad card. Playing eight fectchlands in a mono-colored deck is awkward. But the simple fact is, this deck is effective. It wins games, and it wins them quickly. Jund is a very slow deck in comparison, and generally only Boros can ever rival the speed of this deck. Goblin Guide is a ridiculous card, and Geopede is every bit as strong in this list as he is in Boros, and so when combined with the burn package you’ve got a decent shell. I’ve seen lists playing Elemental Appeal instead of, say, Quenchable Fire, but I think giving your opponent more threats they can solve with a simple unkicked Burst Lightning is a bad idea.

The reason I’ve added this section to the end of this article is that I think this deck is actually very good right now. People are moving back toward control, especially Grixis and RWU, and those decks take a while to set up. If you can keep a reasonable hand, you can have the game won by turn four. Quenchable Fire is actually still a good card against these decks, and coupled with Banefires and Chandras out of the sideboard you needn’t be too afraid of control decks. Turbo-Fog stumbles on Unstable Footing (see what I did there?), Earthquake and Fallout give you an edge versus Boros, and Mark of Mutiny (as well as the aforementioned Chandras) deals with Baneslayer quite nicely. In short, the deck is blazingly fast and has strong match-ups against even the best decks. It might sound like a joke, but Red is more or less just totally on top of the metagame. Grixis, RWU, Jund, Boros, RDW, Valakut, and Naya all feature red. I don’t like red as a color (least favorite, even), but right now it’s very clearly the king of the castle. It will be interesting to see how things change with Worldwake.

Until next time…

Chris Jobin
Team RIW
Shinjutsei on MTGO and everywhere else