I have a confession to make: Zoo isn’t my only pet deck. But only my friends know of my love for Valakut, since I never actually win with it. Off the top of my head, I can think of five pro-level events that I have played Valakut/Scapeshift in during the last year. My best finish with it? Top 32 in a Grand Prix. Pretty bad. Billy P has told me on more than one occasion, “You cannot keep playing that deck. You never win with it.”
Well, now he has to amend that to, “You almost never win with it.” Last weekend, I Top 8ed both Opens, playing both of my favorite decks. I even managed to win with Valakut! Zoo let me down in the quarterfinals, but that’s okay. I still love you Wild Nacatl.
Let’s back up a bit to see what led me to ignore Billy’s perfectly sound advice.
In the weeks leading up to Nationals Billy, Kitt, and I tested Standard quite a bit. Orrin of course did nothing, and Sharfman drafted MD5 on Magic Online while watching Billy and I test. I really wanted to play Valakut. The conventional wisdom seemed to be “Caw-Blade isn’t as good anymore, we can play Zeniths again!” But unsurprisingly, Zeniths were pretty mediocre against Caw-Blade and Billy kept beating me.
We decided to move on and eventually settled on playing Caw-Blade and tuning it to our liking. In the midst of this, I had the idea to build a Valakut deck similar to what BenS was running during Caw-Blade’s pre-banning dominance: 4 Summoning Traps, 4 Inferno Titans, 3-4 Oracle of Mul Daya, Lightning Bolts main etc. I tried the deck on Magic Online, including some games against Kitt piloting Caw-Blade. His response was something along the lines of, “Great. You’re crushing me. You are less consistent and weaker against other decks. Now help me tune the deck we are actually playing.” This sounded about right, so I helped him build the stupid Caw-Blade deck.
We all ended up doing fairly mediocre at Nationals. I do not enjoy playing counterspells or just being the reactive deck in general, so I decided that I did not want to play Caw again at the Richmond Open. I was mostly interested in playing something fun for the tournament, and to that end I briefly considered Puresteel Paladin. I wasn’t sure it was even good in Standard, but hey, I had just Top 8ed a Pro Tour with the card. Thankfully LSV didn’t send me the list he was making videos with, and I was too lazy to come up with something from scratch.
From what I saw at Nationals, there seemed to be a lot of Birthing Pod decks around. I knew from my testing in the previous weeks that Pod decks were very soft to Valakut. I figured I could probably play a version skewed to the Caw matchup and still beat Pod. It doesn’t take a lot to talk me into playing Valakut, even if I am the only one talking, so I had my deck for the weekend.
Building A Valakut Deck, Featuring BenS
I needed some help hammering out the exact 75, so I hit up the other Floridian Valakut aficionado: Ben Stark. Ben loves Valakut even more than I do, going so far as to play it in a format where Zoo was legal (aka blasphemy). We have worked on Valakut/Scapeshift lists together often in the past, so I was confident we could come up with something reasonable. Ben had wisely skipped Nationals, so I had to explain the format a little first.
Me:Â Â Â Want to help me make a Valakut deck for tomorrow?
Ben:Â Okay then yeah play, 3-4 Oracles and a mix of Green Sun’s Zenith and Trap: 3 Trap, 2 Zenith.
Me:Â Â Â What interactive card main?
Me:Â Â Â Is that better than Nature’s Claim?
Ben:Â Well not against Caw, but against everything else. If you want just for Caw, then Claims are fine.
Ben:Â They play Day of Judgment again. I don’t know if you want Battlement. If you want to be anti-Caw, I wouldn’t focus on the GSZ/walls plan.
Me:Â Â Â Okay, what instead then?
Ben:Â Expedition is great against Caw. You get to 9 and then play Titan.
Me:Â Â Â Do I still want Zenith if I have no walls to find?
Me:Â Â Â Slime main?
Ben:Â Kills Swords, Pods, lands in the mirror, good against Tempered Steel.
Me:Â Â Â Seriously, no one plays Tempered Steel. Clasm is infinitely better vs. Red and Pod.
Ben:Â Okay, then 2nd Claim for sure. Maybe some Gaea’s Revenge?
Me:Â Â Â Good enough. I’m sick of thinking about this.*
*We had actually been talking for over an hour. I’m not that lazy.
I end up adding a fourth Oracle to the main and moving the Slime to the board in favor of the second Claim. Cutting a Claim was probably a mistake, especially since the Gaea’s Revenges did nothing all day. I could have gotten away with one or none pretty easily.
This is what I played:
I was honestly not very sure of the deck. Megan asked me for a Valakut list for her to play on Saturday, and I sent it to her with the disclaimer that Ben and I hadn’t actually played any games with it. She balked at the lack of Battlements and asked me to send her a “good list.”
Battlements had been a staple of the archetype ever since Gerry won the first Invitational. It felt weird to cut them. Turn 4 Titan seemed a lot less likely. But at the same time, Ben was right about them being bad against Day of Judgment, and I was pretty sick of the walls getting Dismembered before they did anything. Besides, against Caw-Blade you don’t need a turn 4 Titan. If you can stop them from hitting you with Sword of Feast and Famine, then sitting on a Khalni Heart Expedition is actually a lot better than Battlement. It helps you blank Mana Leak and generally makes tapping out a lot more dangerous for them.
Inferno Titan is awesome right now, and I am not sure why he is not in every Valakut list. He was great against Caw-Blade pre-bannings, and that hasn’t changed. Have you ever cast an Inferno Titan into a board full of Squadron Hawks? Well let me tell you, it feels pretty good. It also kills most creatures in Pod decks, sometimes more than one at the same time. Even against decks where you are not going to kill creatures, he is a huge threat. I think almost every game I won at the Invitational involved killing them with Inferno Titan, though I was playing RUG. So why play an Avenger of Zendikar instead of the fourth Inferno Titan? Well, there’s a couple of reasons. I like having access to Avenger against aggro decks. Not only does it give you a million blockers, it makes you relatively immune to cards like Act of Aggression. Ben likes having a variety of threats against control, especially U/B, since they have Memoricide. Avenger is typically going to kill them just as dead as Inferno Titan, but almost always I would rather be casting a Titan.
I see a lot of people running “silver bullets” like Baloth, or the Acidic Slime that Ben wanted, in the maindeck. Screw that. You don’t want to draw that crap against the wrong decks. Your deck is very consistent as long as you don’t have dead cards in your hand. The Nature’s Claims and Lightning Bolts already give you four opportunities to potentially have a dead card, so let’s not add any more to that.
As a side note: I also don’t like the one-of one-drops in the Zenith versions of the deck. You already have 12 two-mana accelerants, and you don’t really want to mulligan on turn 5 by drawing that Birds of Paradise.
An Overview Of The Standard Open
Remember how before I said I expected to play mostly Caw-Blade and Birthing Pod? Well in the 12 rounds I played, I faced Caw-Blade six times and Birthing Pod twice. I guess we will have to wait for the Too Much Information to see if my prediction was right, or if I just got some lucky pairings. I also played against two fairly disparate Puresteel Paladin decks, including a homebrew that was soft to Inferno Titan, and in the Top 8 I played against Boros.
My only loss of the tournament came from Ben Friedman piloting Caw-Blade. He was playing the Blade Splicer/Hero of Bladehold version of the deck. This version is much stronger against Valakut because they can actually put a reasonable clock on you. Hero is hard to kill and can just end the game by herself. If they manage to cast Hero before you can untap and drop a Titan, then you are in pretty big trouble.
Against the more controlling versions of the deck, you can just sit there indefinitely until you blank Mana Leak. Or if you have a threat-heavy hand, you can just run Titans into their open 1U until something resolves. Either way, they are probably only pecking at
you with a few Hawks this whole time. So you have pretty much forever to win the game.
Of the six times I played against Caw-Blade, three were the aggro version. The matchup is still good for you; you’d just rather be staring down Emeria Angel. The aggro version will often have to give you a free turn with six mana to get a Hero of Bladehold on the table, which is usually enough to win the game.
Every non-Caw deck I played against had the same weakness that the Caw decks had: Inferno Titan. Seriously, that guy kills almost every creature people play in Standard.
Regardless of the color combination, Birthing Pod is a good matchup for Valakut. Creature decks are already good for you, and this one doesn’t even put a real clock on you. Ideally you keep them off of Pod or a creature to sacrifice for a turn or two with Bolt and Claim. Really they can’t do anything scary until five or six mana, so it doesn’t matter if they sacrifice a few early drops to Pod. Inferno Titan will generally stop any progress they have made prior to your casting it. They will often Phyrexian Metamorph to copy it, but that doesn’t matter too much. You should be able to kill it with some combination of the first Inferno Titan and a second copy, a Primeval, or Valakut triggers.
The only time I thought I might lose all day was when I played against Boros in Top 8. Our maindeck skimped a little on cards for the fast aggro matchups. In this one match I would have been far better off with Overgrown Battlements, the full amount of Green Sun’s Zeniths, and a silver bullet Obstinate Baloth.
Coverage of the match can be found here. Game 1 I was close to dead by the time I had six mana, and I needed to trap into an Inferno Titan to not lose. I failed to do that, so we moved on to Game 2. Thankfully, I had a healthy anti-aggro plan in the sideboard. Drawing one Clasm and one Baloth per game is about expectation, and was good enough to take the match.
In Top 4 I played against Aggro-Caw. The coverage can be found here. I quickly win Game 1 due to a turn 4 Summoning Trap off of a countered Oracle of Mul Daya. Oracle puts them in a pretty awkward spot. If they let it resolve, it can get out of hand very quickly. If they counter it and you have Trap, they are even more screwed. I think you have to just counter it and hope for the best, as Ben did.
Game 2 I run out an Inferno Titan that will kill three guys but still leaves me dead, hoping he will counter it out of instinct. He does, and I Trap twice, hitting two Primeval Titans. Summoning Trap is sweet.
One thing to keep in mind if you are double Trapping: depending on how many Titans your first copy sees, you may want to cast the second with the Titan’s coming into play ability on the stack. In this case, there were no more Titans in the top 7 cards, so I had a better chance of finding another before shuffling from the search. If the pile had another Titan, I would have searched up the lands prior to casting the second Trap.
I played against the more controlling version of Caw in the finals. The coverage of the match can be found here. Game 1 I somehow inadvertently miss a land drop, realizing it as the word “go” is coming out of my mouth. I end up narrowly losing the game, and am pretty upset with myself.
Game 2 I manage to make an opening for Primeval Titan when Kyle taps out going for Sword on a Hawk and I have the Bolt. He Days away my Titan and Thrun, but the Valakuts I tutored up are good enough to finish him with the help of Khalni Heart Expedition. Game 3 he taps out for Gideon Jura, giving me an opening to cast Primeval Titan. Again he Days it away, but I have another the next turn (and another in hand just in case that wasn’t good enough).
And that’s how I finally won a tournament with Valakut! This was my first Star City event since the Invitational, and I was honestly a little worried that I might embarrass myself and scrub out. So that I somehow did the opposite of that was certainly a pleasant surprise.
Billy messaged me earlier tonight, “So I guess Valakut is good now? Okay, I’ll play your guys’ list at the GP next week.” Damn right.
Here’s An Updated List, And How To Sideboard With It
Given a similar expected metagame, I would run this next weekend:
I know this is not drastically different, but hey, the deck worked. I only left Avenger in post-sideboard in about half the rounds, and I never really felt like I needed access to him except against Boros. I still want to have him in the 75 because he is awesome against aggro decks. But if Caw is going to be the most popular deck, then you want to have 4 Inferno Titans.
I almost want to turn the Lightning Bolts into Dismembers in the maindeck, since they are slightly better against Caw-Blade and more or less the same against Pod. But I feel like you are kind of shooting yourself in the foot against aggro if you do this. Obviously Dismember is far better against Twin, but that matchup is awful either way and I don’t really want to hurt favorable match-ups to slightly improve a nigh-unwinnable one.
As for the sideboard, Ben was right about wanting all 4 Nature’s claims. Not only is killing a sword important against Caw, but a lot of lists are running Oblivion Ring. This makes Nature’s Claim a one mana Primeval Titan with flash. Yes, this happened more than once, and yes, it was awesome.
Ben was wrong about Gaea’s Revenge. I sided in one copy a couple of times and thankfully never had it as my only option for Trap. I think it is probably fine against U/B, but who the hell plays that deck besides Ali and Shaheen?
Let’s take a look at sideboarding:
Really, all you care about against this deck is keeping them off of Sword of Feast and Famine. If they have Oblivion Ring as well, then Nature’s Claim is basically doing everything you want. If they do not have Oblivion Ring, you probably do not want 4 Claims for 2 Swords. Zenith is pretty meh against Caw because after board they will have Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, and Flashfreeze for it, and you can’t Summoning Trap when it gets countered.
You really need to keep them off of Hero of Bladehold, since she will kill you almost immediately. Hence, Dismember over Bolt here. Thrun makes Hero unable to attack reasonably, and should buy you some time. If they do not have Blade Splicer or Oblivion Ring, I would only bring in 1 Nature’s Claim. Oracle and Expedition are both still good here, but Oracle ends up having to chump against their aggressive draws and the blanking Mana Leak ability of Expedition is slightly less important, since they tap out more often.
This match-up is horrible and you are probably losing. Dismember is the only good card against them. You might think Nature’s Claim is good, but how often do you get to hold up two green mana with Valakut? One won’t do it, as they will just tap it end of turn. If the game goes long you might be able to use it, so it is worth having in, but I wouldn’t feel safe holding up Nature’s Claim.Â You side in the Slime in the hopes of mising and hitting a red source. The deck already loses to itself sometimes by not having double red.
Pyroclasm is good, but not great here. They do have quite a few small guys, but if you can catch a Birds of Paradise and/or Lotus Cobra with it then you are in great shape. You do not want to be greedy with Pyroclasm. Trade one-for-one with either of these creatures on turn 2 if you can. Really, all you are trying to do against this deck is keep them off activating Pod for a 5/6 drop. Claim not only hits Birthing Pod, but Phyrexian Metamorph, which will usually be a copy of your Titan. Bolt and Dismember can both kill their creature in response to them casting Pod.
Basically, if you can disrupt them a little and cast a Titan, you will easily win the game. Inferno Titan is insane against them. Do not blindly go for value here killing two guys. You want to be conscious of what they can tutor up if they cast Pod, and kill the most dangerous casting cost creature. Their almost total lack of removal means that Primeval Titan will get to attack, which is good enough to win against any deck.
I think it should be obvious why these cards are good here. If Claim is good against them (Tempered Steel, equipment, etc.) then you don’t need Thrun. If you need more space, you can take out Expeditions. You do not need to be fast against aggro. You just need to control the board and you will win eventually.
I Also Top 8ed The Legacy Open
Originally I had planned to figure out the details of my Zoo list after being knocked out of the Standard Open. However, since I only had about 20 minutes after the finals, I ended up just playing what I already had sleeved up. Luckily for me, I had given quite a bit of thought to the list a few weeks prior when I wrote this awesome Zoo article.
The main change I made to the deck was to move the Teegs to the maindeck and the Pridemages to the sideboard. This decision process went something like:
“Hey Orrin, do you think I should play Teegs main?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Good enough. Hand me a decklist.”
Seriously though, at the moment it is more likely that you will face a deck with a 4+ CC spell you want to stop than an artifact/enchantment you need to kill. I think you can switch them back and forth based on expected metagame/personal preference. Honestly the majority of the time neither effect is going to matter, because this deck is fast.
Here is the exact list I played on Sunday:
Though I had not played many actual games with the list prior to the tournament, I was confident that it was good. I worked on it for several days while writing my previous article, and a few days later Dan Musser piloted almost the exact same maindeck to the finals of the previous Legacy Open.
Dan played Wastelands instead of Pridemages. Do not do that. Wasteland is a great card, but it doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense to play it in the same deck as Path to Exile. And you can’t run Swords to Plowshares instead of Path in your deck full of burn spells. If for some reason you really want to play Wastelands in your Zoo deck (again, please don’t), then you need to count them as spells. They do not actually cast anything besides Tarmogoyf, so they are not really lands in your deck.
Anyway, the deck performed great. I went 6-0 before drawing the last two rounds. Joshua Cho also made top 16 of the tournament running the 75 from my article.Â
Here is what I played against in the Swiss: Mono Blue, Team America, Merfolk, Bant Stoneforge, B/W Stoneforge, and Goblins. Mono Blue was probably the hardest here. Not necessarily because it’s a bad match-up, but because I did not know what half the cards he cast did and had no idea what to expect. Did you know there is some enchantment for 1U that prevents all damage? That is some nonsense.
I ended up losing in the Top 8 to U/W Stoneforge, which is actually a slightly favorable matchup. I nominally lost Game 2 to him having one of his two Spell Snares for my Lightning Helix, but really I played around Wrath of God when I could not afford to and it cost me the game.
I always expect to do better in Legacy than Standard. So after winning the Standard Open, I thought I had a real shot at winning both tournaments in the same weekend. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to fall short here. But as I said, it was my own fault for misplaying in Top 8.
Congrats to Shaheen on an awesome weekend as well. Not only did he Top 4 Standard, he won his fourth Draft Open. My friend Will Fitchko also had his first SCG success, winning the other Draft Open. Neat.
Zoo In Modern
Last Wednesday I tweeted:
@LuisScottVargas Yeah, it seems that my plan of procrastinating until they changed it to Modern didn’t work out.
Then midnight Friday morning they announce the format change for Philly. I’m not saying I have precognitive powers, but I might.
I doubt many people were more excited about this change than I was. Have you seen the banned list? It is like they intentionally got rid of all cards that are good against Zoo. And Zoo was already good in Old Extended, where many of those cards were legal. I am pretty sure Wizards loves me and wants me to win the Pro Tour.
Anyway, a lot of people have asked me for my take on Zoo in the format. Sorry, I can’t really talk about that right now. I will gladly write an article about Zoo in Modern after the Pro Tour, hopefully with a strong finish to back it up. If you are looking for a starting point, you can check out my Top 8 deck from GP Oakland last year. I remember liking my list from GP Houston better, but I have no idea how to find Top 32 decklists.
Good luck to those of you playing in the SCG Open Boston (Boxborough) this weekend. Hopefully something besides Caw-Blade wins again.
See you in Pittsburgh!