Using Green To Beat The House Black And Blue

The Innovator examines #SCGBALT results and provides a few brews he’s preparing to test for the Pro Tour! Check out his latest innovations before #SCGKC!

Look, I know Lifebane Zombie still exists.

I get that.

It just feels like there should be room for a green deck to prey on this format.

Of course, that’s probably how Kibler, Wakefield, and Turian always feel…

Green gets a bad rap in Magic. Maybe there’s a little of it grandfathered in, sort of just stories passed down from generation to generation, of what it was like back when green was the weakest color. Those days are long gone. Sort of. Nowadays, the colors fluctuate pretty well, with every color getting plenty of days in the sun. Sure, today might be a whole lot of black and blue, but if you’ll recall, Thragtusk was legal last year. It wasn’t that long ago that mono-black control was mocked the same way people have mocked white weenie, goblin decks, and mono-green. These things go in cycles.

It’s been a rough year for green. Lifebane Zombie exists. At least white has Elspeth, Supreme Verdict, Detention Sphere, and Sphinx’s Revelation. Green? It’s been challenging. I wonder what it would be like if Lifebane Zombie only Mesmeric Fiend-ed the card, like Tidebinder Mage (sort of)?

It’s been a rough year to play green, but these are dynamic times. M15 presents us with a plethora of new options, but as usual, people in tournaments are sticking to what they know rather than trying new strategies, new cards, new techniques. This makes them predictable. The answers to the new cards are not yet known. People that are just playing old decks are not going to be set up to beat them. This makes them exploitable.

The first weekend of Standard results are in. As expected, the field was nearly entirely the decks people already had built with only the most obvious new cards getting slotted in.

  • Three top 8s for Black Devotion, including the win – Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Liliana Vess.
  • Two top 8s for Blue Devotion – Polymorphist’s Jest…
  • B/W Midrange – Caves of Koilos
  • G/W Aggro – Sunblade Elf and somewhat surprisingly, Ajani Steadfast.
  • Naya Aggro – No M15.
  • Notice what’s missing? No control. No Jund Monsters. No R/W Burn. People haven’t figured out how to build control decks for the new format (they haven’t seen Wafo-Tapa’s PT decklist yet). Jund Monsters is just not a good deck, at least as it was constructed; however, there are some new cards in M15 that might help it. As for R/W Burn? It’ll be back. Watch next week now that people are reminded that black devotion is the deck to beat. They even gain a few new tricks and better mana!

    Let’s take a look at those green decks from the SCG Open in Baltimore this weekend. First, the G/W Aggro deck:

    There’s a lot to like in Boswell’s list and a few promising areas that could be built on. First of all, I love the manabase. A pair of Mutavaults (which is more than most G/W mages find room for) supported by the full four Mana Confluences and four Temple of Plenty. Despite all this, he still finds room for five Plains (giving him a 79% chance of powering up Sunblade Elf by turn 3) and five Forests (an 84% chance of being able to cast his one-drops on turn 1).

    How many Sunblade Elves should we play? They do have diminishing returns after all. The first is about as high impact as a one-drop can be late in the game, while the second one is just a liability for Bile Blight. Of course, the third Soldier of the Pantheon is a Bile Blight liability anyway, and frankly, with as many Fleecemane Lions and Experiment Ones as we have, Bile Blight is going to be solid gold. I would want to run at least Sunblade Elves (replacing a Soldier of the Pantheon) and would like to try the full playset.

    The two Banishing Lights are a nice touch. Once you have Boon Satyr, you’re already not blanking enchantment removal anyway, and Banishing Light gives G/W some much needed versatility. It would hurt us against control, but Boswell correctly read the metagame as a control-light field.

    What I find curious is the three-slot being occupied by Loxodon Smiter, Boon Satyr, and Ajani, Caller of the Pride, with not a Brimaz in sight. Granted, Brimaz is better when you have removal or Anthems, but the card is just so insane. It even combos with Sunblade Elf, Boon Satyr, Selesyna Charm, and Ajani, Caller of the Pride!

    Speaking of Ajani, I’m interested to see what comes of Ajani Steadfast. Sideboarding in non-creature threats is great, and while this Ajani isn’t the greatest against Supreme Verdict, at least it makes every other creature a real threat. Where the card really shines is in creature battles. Giving +1/+1 to your team, then going plus to gain some life, then another round of +1/+1s is devastating. Additionally, if you just tick up, you are going to gain a lot of life in a hurry while still defending yourself very well. Defend Ajani for three turns and suddenly you’re real hard to damage; this makes races trivial. I’m not sold on Ajani Steadfast holding onto sideboard space, but let the record show, he’s already on the scoreboard.

    I like the quantity of pro-blue creatures in the sideboard, and in fact, I would like to see two more. Blue Devotion is not a great matchup, and the Mistcutter Hydra is very high impact. I get Hunt the Hunter, I do, but how high impact is it? I mean, how many people are we really boarding it in against, per day?

    Speaking of sideboard cards against Blue Devotion, check out the Gruul Charms in Stephen Reed’s sideboard:

    Gruul Charm is sooo sweet! Creatures without flying can’t block? Oh, you mean like Master of Waves tokens and Thassa? Gain control of all permanents you own? Like those that have been Domesticated or Nightveil Spectered? Deal three damage to all fliers? Like Cloudfin Raptor, Judge’s Familiar, and Nightveil Specter? Remember, Reed could have played Skylasher or Mistcutter Hydra, but he found Gruul Charm to be better.

    Rather than a more evenly split Zoo deck like many traditional fast Naya decks, Reed’s list is basically a mono-red aggro deck, splashing green for Experiment One, Ghor-Clan Rampager, and Slaughterhorn; and white for Boros Charm and Chained to the Rocks.

    The four Mountains in the sideboard may look a little funny, since after all, how does he cast his spells with just twenty land? However, his curve is deceptively low; Ghor-Clan Rampager costs two, and Slaughterhorn costs one. He actually has sixteen green sources (thanks to Burning-Tree Emissary), and his white spells don’t need to be cast early. When he keeps a hand without white mana, he still has a 50/50 shot of drawing into one in the next three draws.

    The reason for actual basic Mountain is ostensibly Chained to the Rocks, though I wonder if we can afford to be a little greedier. Going from twelve Mountains down to eleven only reduces your odds of having one by turn 3 on the play from 91.3% to 89.1%. If you changed one into a Battlefield Forge, it would increase the chances of having a white at all by turn 3 from 91.3% to 93.1%. That is almost exactly the same odds of a turn 3 Chained to the Rocks while increasing the chances of Boros Charm. That said, maybe the pain just isn’t worth it. We already take a lot of damage from our manabase!

    Slaughterhorn doesn’t see nearly the play it should. Rumblebelt Maaka has become commonplace, and Slaughterhorn has a much better back-up plan. If I were to make one complaint about it though, it would be that it increases our exposure to Lifebane Zombie. As a result, I could see an argument to actually just trade them in for Rumblebelt Maakas, though Boros Reckoner and Ghor-Clan Rampager already mean we’re going to be pretty exposed.

    One of the things that’s great about this approach is that its weakness, sweepers like Supreme Verdict and Anger of the Gods, are nowhere to be found at the top. There’s a real shortage of good one-cost removal spells, and this Naya list can get even further ahead with the ultra-sick Burning-Tree Emissary, not to mention tons of one and two-cost tricks, setting up tempo turns where it makes two good plays to the opponent’s one.

    One of the challenges of working with Burning-Tree Emissary is finding 1G or 1R creatures to cast off of it. After all, there’s a lot of appeal to cards like Ash Zealot, Kalonian Tusker, Fleecemane Lion, Voice of Resurgence, and so on. Is Ghor-House Chainwalker really as good as it gets? What about this girl:

    While blocking as a 2/1 would generally be better than blocking as a 1/2, you are almost never going to leash Ghor-House Chainwalker. Even if you have to, it’s not very good at switching gears and going back to offense. Borderland Marauder can threaten to chump, if needed, then switch back to offense, when the time is right.

    In thinking about what creatures could be cast off of Burning-Tree Emissary, here’s kind of an exotic one to consider:

    The trick here, of course, is finding room for enough expensive bombs (preferably without haste) to make the Servant worth it while not jamming up your hand when you don’t draw the accelerator. It’s really tough to play that many fatties in a Burning-Tree Emissary deck, as BTE decks tend to be “small-ball” strategies. They use lots of little threats, getting in a few damage here, a few damage there. R/G decks with fatties deck to end up much more about haymakers. If you are chunking people with Polukranos, how much did an extra 2/2 early really matter?

    Nevertheless, I tried sketching a Generator Servant R/G deck using Burning-Tree Emissary. My ideal Generator Servant target? Kalonian Hydra. A turn 3 Hydra hits for 8, then 16, completing the two-card turn 4 kill.

    Unfortunately, there’s not a second Servant-buddy even remotely in the same league as Kalonian Hydra. Stormbreath Dragon already has haste, and once we start looking at cards like Arbor Colossus and Soul of Shandalar, we’re pretty far from a Burning-Tree Emissary deck. Here’s where I ended up (after cutting the Experiment Ones and Burning-Tree Emissaries):

    This is more fatties than most Monster decks play these days, eschewing black removal. This makes Xenagos particularly important as an additional mana source. I’ve been liking Soul of Shandalar more and more the more I think about it, and Xenagos leads to some pretty big mana turns, possibly dropping Soul of Shandalar and using it in the same turn.

    Going back to the Naya-front: I wonder, is it possible that R/W Burn is supposed to consider splashing green? How much does it really cost us?


    So the theory is that we beat Black Devotion and B/W because of our burn package. By sideboarding a million pro-blue creatures, maybe we can steal enough free wins against Blue Devotion to turn the matchup around. They might also add a nice dimension against U/W, if we should have to face one. This would hurt our aggro matchups, so it’s a calculated risk, but I kind of just want to hate out black and blue devotion decks.

    I had considered Soul of Shandalar in a R/W Burn deck, giving us more staying power against black decks. The thing is, that’s already a good matchup. Is the Soul of Shandalar doing enough elsewhere? It does require us to play more land to support it…

    You might have noticed I snuck a couple Anger of the Gods in there to try to steal some free wins against aggro decks and blue devotion. It’s probably more of a sideboard card than a maindeck one, but Soul of Shandalar does encourage us to be more of a midrange deck. Even when playing a more normal R/W Burn deck, I would definitely want access to some Anger of the Gods in my 75. It’s one of the most underrated cards in Standard in my opinion.

    You know, we could just embrace the creatures, be willing to make their removal good, and pick up stuff like Young Pyromancer, Prophetic Flamespeaker, and Stormbreath Dragon.

    Going even further down the road to hate, what if we started maindecking this craziness? This is probably too hateful, but what about something like this:

    There’s obviously a fair bit of conventional wisdom thrown out the window with this one. Splashing Blood Baron of Vizkopa when we could just Archangel of Thune? Polukranos, World Eater instead of Advent of the Wurm? Maindeck Skylashers instead of Sylvan Caryatid or Fleecemane Lion? Spirit Bonds and Reclamation Sage suggests we’re playing a pretty midrangey game yet we have no Elspeths.

    Gotta make room for those Mistcutter Hydras!

    Okay, so maybe this one is too far off the deep end, but I wonder about what the most high impact sideboard cards we could maindeck are. There’s always just so much black and blue devotion, it feels like we should be playing more exploitive strategies. Maybe we’re sacrificing too much raw power, but here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Skylashers and Mistcutters are not that bad, and are really strong against blue devotion.
  • Polukranos is also fantastic against blue devotion, and if we are already getting dinged by Lifebane Zombie, let’s just embrace it. It triggers Spirit Bonds, unlike Advent, and we have enough Baneslayers that we’re going to overload their removal.
  • Spirit Bonds seems like it could be so good against black decks. It’s such a great way to win the attrition wars, beat removal, and beat Desecration Demon. It’s particularly great right now while people are on mono-black instead of B/g (which would be much better equipped to remove it).
  • The Blood Barons are obviously great against black devotion. Lifebane Zombie is very harsh, but it’s going to be a rockstar against us anyway.
  • Reclamation Sage is a bit of a nod towards wanting to stay proactive while having answers to the threats we know people will play. I particularly like hitting Underworld Connections, Chained to the Rocks, and Banishing Light right now. That said, the enchantment kill would be more appealing if we also had better creature kill. Selesnya Charm is not bad, but maybe we’re supposed to get some more Ultimate Price/Doom Blade/Putrefy types. Hell, maybe we’re even supposed to bend the manabase to support Hero’s Downfalls (although I would hate to lose the Mutavault).
  • Four Blood Barons with three more lifelinkers in the board is a fair bit of life gain for combating R/W Burn and various red aggro decks.
  • We’re probably going to struggle mightily with control, but we could play a lot more discard, cards that pay life to draw cards, and generally just gain some percentage if we thought it was worth it. There’s just not that much control, and what control there is is not exactly particularly varied. Sphinx’s Revelation, the card, is harsh, but I don’t think we want to go all the way to Stain the Mind. I think I’d rather just use more Duresses and Sin Collectors if it came to that.
  • Thoughtseize in the sideboard instead of the main? Probably just bad, but the Thoughtseizes would gain a lot from more spot removal.

    At the end of the day, I think the pro-blue creatures are just too much small ball when a Blood Baron/Polukranos deck wants to be focused on supporting the heavy hitters. If we really want to maindeck Skylashers and Mistcutters, it’s more likely to work in a more aggressive deck, such as:

    This list even manages to sneak a couple Spirit Bonds in to try to steal some percentage from black devotion. What I struggle with is what pace of game I want to play at. How aggressive are we trying to be? Losing Fleecemane Lion is a serious blow to our damage per second.

    In keeping with the theme of trying to hate out black or blue devotion decks, one of the cards that feels like it could do the most work is Soul of Innistrad.

    It feels like that is one of the most high impact cards you could draw against a black devotion deck, and it’s quite good against everyone if you build to it.

    This list is sort of the halfway point between Black Devotion and B/G Self-Mill. Zero straight up card draw is probably just bad, but we do dodge enchantment removal completely, and Soul of Innistrad is a legit card draw engine that can take over the game. Reclamation Sage is great with Soul of Innistrad, but what we really need is creature kill. If only there was a good Shriekmaw, the card advantage from Soul of Innistrad could more easily be converted into a game-winning one.

    This tries to stay out of the way of Lifebane Zombie, but if we weren’t scared, Polukranos could be a fine choice, and Courser of Kruphix is also on the table (particularly if we get Underworld Connections back in here).

    I’ve got one more deck idea for today, but it’s mostly just a concept, a thought experiment at the moment, trying to better understand a funny M15 card:

    Chromantic Lantern has long promised the possibility of a five-color control deck, likely built around Sphinx’s Revelation and Rakdos’s Return in the same deck (a very, very dangerous duo). The problem has always been making a deck that takes advantage of the Lantern while not folding without it.

    Mana Confluence is a very strong addition to such a deck. First of all, it’s obviously a tier 1 five-color land that gives us serious insurance for the non-Lantern games. However, unlike City of Brass, it actually combos awesome with the Lantern. Once you drop the Lantern, you never need pay life for the Mana Confluence again!

    Meteorite is weaker than those two, and at five-cost is a bit unwieldy, but it does support the theme and helps us ramp into big Revs and Returns while providing some spell-like power to help combat mana flood.

    Could it be time?

    Admittedly, that’s a pretty ambitious number of Temples, but we do have six sweepers to help make up the tempo. It’s also worth noting, the manabase has twenty dual lands, and not a one of them makes B/R or U/W. Fairly non-intuitively, guild appropriate dual lands are often inefficient at casting their same guild’s spells (If you have a Blood Crypt and a Hallowed Fountain, the odds that you can cast Dreadbore, Rakdos’s Return, Supreme Verdict, and Sphinx’s Revelation goes down). By using the other pairs, you end up with Temple of Deceit + Temple of Triumph, and Temple of Epiphany + Temple of Silence. Either of those pairs makes casting our gold cards much easier.

    What would be awesome is if there were a good one-mana removal spell we could play. My God, would we love a Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, Innocent Blood, Wretched Banquet, or Condemn! Being able to drop a Lantern or a Meteorite and use it for mana in the same turn would be huge. I guess we could consider Shock or Magma Spray, but I’d like to do better.

    I declined to use cards like Abrupt Decay, trying to stay basically four colors. Vraska is much easier, as she isn’t coming down until after the Lantern anyway. I’d just hate to have Abrupt Decay as my two-drop removal spell and be stuck playing it on turn four or five.

    Liliana Vess is a nice addition, providing another way to build advantage each turn, threaten to win the game, and helping us find key cards in a timely fashion (such as Dissolve, Deicide, or Rakdos’s Return). If anything, we probably want to embrace the hardcore Planeswalker path even more. There are a lot of Planeswalkers we could play one-of.

    There is a totally different direction we could go with five-color control. We could make it more of a ramp deck that powers out bombs (in addition to the busted X-spells). Such a deck would use four Sylvan Caryatids and probably have a manabase that looks more like:

    The challenge with this path is resolving the Sylvan Caryatid + Supreme Verdict tension. However, if you can do that, the world is your oyster. Well, assuming you found a mix of reactive spells that could make up for this ungodly amount of tapped lands. Remember, Evolving Wilds comes into play untapped, making it a mondo-combo with Chromantic Lantern!

    You probably can’t get away with playing zero Thoughtseize or permission in a “control” deck, but we really are just trying to play a straight-up ramp game. If anything, we’re aiming too big and need more cheap plays, but at least this could give us an idea of whether there is anything here for us.

    Okay, I’m out for this week. I have to board a plane to Portland to meet up with the Pantheon. There is so much to explore, I really have no idea where we’ll land. What I can tell you though, is that we’re going to try everything. Maybe M15 has something that will change the format like Thassa and Gray Merchant did, maybe Born of the Gods or Journey into Nyx contained game-changers no one found. If there is a way out of this metagame, a new path, a new strategy, someone has to find it.

    Look, I know a lot of these decks aren’t going to work out, and a lot of them look kind of stupid.

    Most new ideas fail and look stupid.

    The ones that don’t are remembered as brilliant.

    Mediocrity is a bigger risk than trying new things, even if trying new things results in lots of little failures.

    The point is to win. Inventing new strategies no one has seen before is a powerful tool for increasing our chances of winning. That’s why I stress trying solve the new cards so much, trying to find a new path. If our goal was to avoid looking bad, to avoid getting made fun of, to avoid looking like an idiot in front of everyone else at the tournament, we’d make different decisions.

    But who cares what they think?

    It’s about what the scoreboard thinks… Now let’s brew this!