You Lika The Juice? – Sprouting Husk Gets Medieval on the Metagame

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard open Comes to Philadelphia!
Thursday, November 13th – Man, after round 2 of Champs this past weekend, I was feeling about as low about Magic as I ever have, basically building on the bad feelings from the $5K and diving through the floor to sub-basement levels. It helped a bit that my second round opponent was a friend of mine, so I took a little consolation that the 2-0 drubbing he gave me might help propel him to a Swiss come-back after losing the first round.

“States is traditionally thought of as an aggro-heavy metagame up until Round 1 starts and we all realize we lied to ourselves again this year.”
Sean McKeown

Man, after round 2 of Champs this past weekend, I was feeling about as low about Magic as I ever have, basically building on the bad feelings from the $5K and diving through the floor to sub-basement levels. It helped a bit that my second round opponent was a friend of mine, so I took a little consolation that the 2-0 drubbing he gave me might help propel him to a Swiss come-back after losing the first round.

Yes, I did go ahead and play Meadowlark, pretty much the same list I’d posted last week with a few tweaks: -3 Thoughtseize (moved to the board), -1 Rhox War Monk; +1 Mulldrifter, +1 Reveillark, +2 Resounding Thunder. I’m not sure why I’d talked myself into playing only three Mulldrifters and three ‘Larks, but I finally came to my senses before the tournament. The Resounding Thunder was a bit of inspiration, when chatting with Jay about the deck he pointed out I may have some issue with manlands and Planeswalkers. When kicking around various solutions (and also worrying a bit about thorny Stillmoon Cavalier) I remembered Resounding Thunder, a card Chapin had advocated in his Cruel Control build. Meadowlark had the same five-color manabase, so why not? It also occurred to me that, with my more aggressive Reveillark build, I might be able to steal a win or two from control players that felt they’d stabilized while at 6 or less life.

The first round I was paired against Cryptic Command/Reflecting Pool (Cruel Control), and we had a pretty long, three-game battle where he eventually forced me to block his Cloudthresher with Gaddock Teeg and unlock the two Cryptic Commands I’d stranded in his hand. He obviously won quite handily after that. For the second round I was paired against Cryptic Command/Tribal (Feldman Merfolk), with my buddy smashing my face in two quick games with the Knights of Meadowgrain I’d lent him. Reveillark (the card) doesn’t do much against an aggressive deck if it keeps getting tapped down and the one Wrath you draw gets Cryptic Commanded.

So yeah… remember my rant two weeks back about this stagnant metagame, where nearly all the best decks tap into the trifecta power centers of Cryptic Command, Reflecting Pool, and Tribal synergies? I felt bitterly vindicated as I checked the DROP? box on the match result slip after round 2.

A big part of me wanted to leave the tournament and go find solace in some other past-time where there aren’t winners and losers, but I checked that notion because, for better or worse, I’m a mainstay at States and I know a lot of people who come to the tournament each year. As painful as it was to have the constant stream of people come by asking how I was doing, I did want to stick around and give support to the friends who were doing well. I have not had the opportunity to draft much with Shards of Alara, so I jumped into some side drafts to try and soothe my ego that I haven’t completely lost all my Magic chops. The drafts didn’t really help too much, since I lost my first match in the first draft, and lost my second match in my second draft… however, I’m glad I stuck around because watching what was happening at the top tables throughout the day made me realize that my hypothesis about a stagnant metagame wasn’t necessarily true. Sure, there were plenty of Cryptic Commands, Reflecting Pools, and tribal decks up there; but there were also plenty of other decks rocking it out and chalking up wins. Mid-Atlantic Regionals Champ and local friend Michael Rooks went undefeated in the Swiss piloting an updated version of the “aggro token” deck he made Top 16 with at the Star City $5K two weeks prior. Brian Kelly came real close to Top 8 with Jund Ramp, with his Planeswalkers doing all kinds of dirty work. A couple guys had a teched-out LD Reveillark deck that seemed to be stealing wins all day. And of course turn 1 Figure of Destiny wrecked dreams left and right.

One of the huge benefits of real-life Magic is community, not just the large group of guys you see at these events over and over, but your core group of homies that you hang with at the local store. Even if you do terribly, there’s a good chance one of your friends is doing well, so if you’re not a completely selfish bastard you can get a lot of joy from their success. It was fun watching Rooks smash people with Nantuko Husk, and by the end of the day listening to strangers whispering to each other about his deck. “Did you see that guy with Stokin’ Tokens just wrecking people?” “Actually, I think his deck is different…” You don’t really get that online; you get crushed, and suddenly you’re just an upset nerd sitting alone in front of a computer screen at home. Typing out bad beat stories in a chat box pales in comparison to the hand-waving drama you can pull off when giving your buds the low down on the tough breaks in person.

Anyway, I didn’t play long enough to write a tournament report, and who really cares to hear anything more about a deck that so obviously didn’t cut the mustard? In the wake of States, I thought it might be more interesting to you to read about a really cool rogue deck that’s done well here in Virginia, and might be something fun to bring to your local Friday Night Magic sometime. Here’s the deck that came one Red mana away from letting Michael Rooks walk home with the State Champs plaque:

Sprouting Husk
2nd place VA State Champs
Michael Rooks

2 Swamp
4 Reflecting Pool
3 Gilt-Leaf Palace
3 Treetop Village
2 Mountain
2 Fire-Lit Thicket
2 Graven Cairns
2 Twilight Mire
4 Savage Lands
4 Kitchen Finks
2 Puppeteer Clique
4 Safehold Elite
4 Nantuko Husk
3 Murderous Redcap
4 Sprouting Thrinax
2 Sarkhan Vol
3 Bitterblossom
4 Profane Command
3 Thoughtseize
2 Eyeblight’s Ending
1 Loxodon Warhammer

4 Guttural Response
4 Firespout
4 Necrogenesis
3 Naturalize

(I might be tempted to call the deck “Them!” after that 1950s movie about man’s encounter with a nest of radiation-giganticized ants, but the reference might be too obscure I suppose…)

All right, let me put my reporter hat on and press Michael’s patience…

Bennie: Hi Michael. Tell us a little about yourself.
Michael: All right. My name is Michael Rooks. I’m 21, from Richmond, VA, and I go to George Mason University where I’m majoring in Information Technology. Other than Magic I’m a gamer at heart. I play a lot of video games, my favorites being real time strategy and RPGs.

B: How long have you been playing Magic?
M: Well, I first encountered Magic when my Mom bought my brother and I a Portal starter pack with 2 decks in it. We learned the very basics of the game from that, but didn’t follow all of the rules. I learned the real rules of the game during Onslaught block, and started playing in FNMs and larger tournaments during Mirrodin Block.

B: What are your notable Magic performances outside of 2nd place at Virginia Champs?
M: I’ve made Top 8 at 3 PTQs so far, each of these being a different Block Constructed season where my rogue decks have a better chance of competing. I finished 1st at Mid-Atlantic Regionals this year and finished 2nd at the city champs finals in Virginia Beach.

B: I know Star City categorized your deck as “Aggro Tokens” at the Star City $5K. What is your name for the deck? How did you come up with the idea?
M: We decided to call the deck Sprouting Husk because it is based around creatures that have good synergy with Nantuko Husk, and Sprouting Thrinax can provide some impressive finishes. The idea for the deck evolved from a deck my girlfriend Jess and I had been playing since before Shards came out, it was BGw with Juniper Order Ranger to go infinite with Husk. Once Coldsnap rotated and Thrinax became available the colors changed.

B: How is your deck different from other “token” decks like Stoken Tokens/Torrent of Souls? Did you draw any ideas from those decks? Do you think your deck is better positioned for the metagame than those decks, and if so why?
M: Both decks are capable of producing a large amount of tokens, but mine does not focus on that. The tokens in this deck are a product of making it as Wrath-resistant as possible while getting as many creatures as possible to feed Husk. I was surprised when I saw how similar the decks were, but since most of my deck was built pre-Shards — and actually pre-Eventide — I haven’t really drawn any ideas from those decks. I believe Sprouting Husk is better positioned to fight this metagame than the token decks because of the great match-up it has against Five-Color Control.

B: What changes did you make to the deck between the $5K and State Champs, and why did you make those changes? How did those changes help the deck’s performance?
M: At the $5k I wasn’t able to get my hands on any Sarkhan Vols and so I played without them. I removed 1 Eyeblight’s Ending and 1 Murderous Redcap to add 2 Sarkhan Vols to the deck for States. These changes improved the deck’s performance greatly; it provides the deck’s only real answer to pro-black creatures. Stillmoon Cavalier is the worst thing you could ever see on the opponent’s side of the board.

B: If I recall correctly, you were undefeated in the Swiss. What decks did you play and how are your matchups against those decks in general?
M: Yes I was undefeated in the Swiss. Here’s a recap of my round by round:

Round 1, I played an interesting Faeries deck that was Esper colors and included cards like Kitchen Finks. Faeries is usually a pretty even match-up depending on our draws.

Round 2, I was paired against a friend of mine who only came to States because I loaned him a deck, and he just conceded to me.

Round 3, I played a Five-Color Merfolk deck including Chameleon Colossus and Oona. Merfolk is usually a pretty favorable matchup. The only threat you really have to worry about is an active Sygg.

Round 4, I played a BG elves deck. Elves is a favorable match-up for Husk.

Round 5, I played against another friend of mine who was playing Reveillark. Reveillark is a great match-up for Husk. We went to game 3 and I won on the last turn of extra turns.

Round 6, I played against Mono-Red. Mono-Red is 50/50 and is very dependant on the die roll.

Top 8, my opponent conceded because he had to leave. I played him last night at FNM and knew he was playing Blightning Aggro which is about the same as Mono-Ted, except they can block a Feared Husk and that makes this a more difficult match-up.

Top 4, I played against another Blightning Aggro deck.

In the Finals, I played against Kithkin Backlash. Kithkin is probably the worst match-up for the deck, but it gets better after sideboarding with Firespout. Ironically I won game 1, but lost games 2 and 3. Game 2 I was holding double Firespout all game and couldn’t draw a Red mana, but I did find that if I hadn’t made 1 small mistake I would’ve won that game so I can’t really blame mana screw for my loss. Game 3 he ran me over with double Wilt-leaf Liege.

B: I was watching that game and could see your hand; it was heartbreaking that you went so long with no Red mana, when you could just blow the game wide open with Firespout. What was the mistake you made that could have won you the game?
A: It hit me Sunday morning that I probably could have won that second game. At one point he made his Stillmoon Cavalier block my one Bitterblossom token and I was so flustered that I had forgotten the Cavalier could fly that I just passed the turn. If I had been thinking, I could have then cast Firespout for Green and killed it, and with no Cavalier stopping me I would have won the game. Ah well, hindsight is 20/20, but I’ll know better next time.

B: After States, are there any further changes you’d make to the deck, and why?
M: After States the only changes I would make to the deck are to change the sideboard. I had 3 Naturalize because I couldn’t think of what else to put in that spot (for the $5K it had been Blightning). I would change those to something better against WW. Maybe having our own Stillmoon Cavaliers would help.

B: Okay, let’s assume I showed up at Champs with a copy of your deck but had never played it. Give me a primer on how to best play the deck.
M: If you are familiar with the deck Ghost Husk it plays very similarly to that. The main plan behind the deck is to survive long enough to get a Husk out with a bunch of guys. Never play the Husk without at least 1 other creature to sacrifice if you can help it. Use your Profane Commands as efficiently as possible, sacking a Thrinax and getting it back with Profane while giving a Husk fear wins most games. Even if you don’t have the Husk you are still a mid-range aggro deck with decent creatures that don’t die to mass-removal. Remember that you can sac Threatened creatures to Husk and you can sac Husk or another creature in response to an O-ring or an Unmake to get it back later with Profane. Puppeteer Clique provides you with a number of options as well using Husk. You can do a ton of damage in one turn so be prepared to do a lot of combat math.

B: How much damage have you dealt in one turn with this deck?
A: The most damage I’ve dealt in one turn while playing this deck is 24. I was playing against a token deck and they were at exactly 24. Their creatures were tapped out and all I had was a Nantuko Husk, a Bitterblossom, and one token. I was able to play a Puppeteer Clique targeting their Sprouting Thrinax, sac their Thrinax netting me 3 tokens, sac the Clique and get the Thrinax again, and sac it again + all of the tokens and the Clique a second time to swing for 24 and the win in that turn.

B: What are your sideboarding strategies?
M: Guttural Response comes in against Fae and Five-Color Control, Necrogenesis comes in against token decks and Reveillark, and Firespout comes in against any aggro deck. Naturalize was just filler. I would replace them with Stillmoon Cavaliers or maybe Infest to help shore up the Kithkin match-up.

B: Tell us your thoughts on the metagame matchups?
M: In the Faeries match-up the most important threats you have are Treetop Villages. Also, Bitterblossoms help quite a bit in negating their ability to race you. Husk is very heavy on three-drops, and if you can land a couple Thrinax/Finks you can get ahead on damage very quickly. Husk is also useful to sacrifice creatures that get targeted by Sowers of Temptation.

Merfolk has a similar mid-range strategy to Husk, but has smaller threats that all die to mass removal. However, they have counterspells and spells such as Crib Swap or Condemn that can ruin your day if you attempt to go all-in with a Husk. The Five-Color version is more difficult to play against if they draw a couple copies of Chameleon Colossus, but your larger creatures are usually able to overwhelm the smaller Merfolk despite the card advantage they generate. As I said earlier, the biggest threat in the deck is Sygg, River Guide as he can turn off all of your removal spells and makes it very difficult to block the little fish.

Elves is a very similar deck to Husk and it plays many of the same cards. There isn’t much to say about this match-up other than the only card you need to worry about in their deck is Chameleon Colossus. You can easily stall the ground out with blockers/tokens until you can get a Husk/Profane Command and swing for the win. Murderous Redcap really shines in this matchup as he kills opposing Imperious Perfects.

Mono-Red is basically a race. Finks is extremely important in this match-up. You want to get as many Finks out ASAP. Profane Commands are very good in this match-up to recur Finks. Also, save Eyeblight’s Endings for Demigods or fully pumped Figures of Destiny. Winning the die roll makes your Bitterblossoms much better for making blockers, turning them into Forcefields most of the time. Try to get as much damage in as you can and prepare for a Profane Command/Husk win. If you happen to draw the one-of Loxodon Warhammer it should ensure a victory in this matchup as you have a nearly infinite number of creatures to equip it to and putting it on a Husk is very hard to deal with. Magma Spray and Puncture Blast are cards to watch out for in this match-up. Puncture Blast is their only reliable way to remove a Husk.

The Blightning Aggro deck can be very tricky, and I’ve seen a bunch of different builds. Opposing Bitterblossoms are a pain, but the strategy is the same as in the Mono-Red matchup.

Cruel Control or Five-Color Control, as well as Reveillark, are both very favorable match-ups. They depend greatly on their mass removal spells and your deck is designed to be resistant to them. Double Wrath does not happen often, and you have Profane Command, Treetop Villages, and Thoughtseizes to help prevent it, or recover from it. Be aware of Cryptic Commands and try to wait until they are tapped out or near tapped out to go all in with a Husk.

For the Kithkin matchup, your goal is to removal all opposing Painter’s Servants and hope they do not draw a Stillmoon Cavalier. You can still get around a Cavalier especially if they go on the offensive with it. Be careful of Unmakes if you go for the all-in with Husk. The one-of Warhammer can help you a great deal against opposing Stillmoons. Post-sideboard Firespout is key.

B: One of the things I really like about you as a player is you fearlessly go your own way, build rogue decks, and then do well with them. Where do you generally get your deck ideas? What do you do to get those deck ideas to be competitive?
M: Well, each deck is different. The idea for the Shamans deck I played [at Mid-Atlantic Regionals] came after watching a great draft deck that Jay Delazier had that could just kill people so quickly, and I decided to try it in Constructed. Sprouting Husk came about on one Sunday when Jess, David, and I were bored and decided to build a deck based around Persist. It started as a BW control deck and evolved into a BGw aggro deck. Then when Shards came out I added Sprouting Thrinax and the rest fell together. I test my decks pretty thoroughly; usually I play on Magic Workstation solo and I have the bought version so I can play my decks against other decks by myself. Luckily I’m pretty good at not being biased while I play against myself, and I can pretend I don’t know what’s in the opponent’s hand to get an accurate feel for how things will play out.

B: Since you’ve done so well with this deck, do you have any other deck ideas from your mad scientist lab that you’re going to be working on now?
M: The only other deck I’ve spent some time on is a Bwg zombie deck. I’ll probably try to put that one together because I think it will be fun to bring to FNM.

B: Are you going to be playing in the Extended PTQs? What do you think you might play assuming something is done to stop the Elven menace?
M: I’ll probably be playing in the Extended PTQs. I usually get rid of all my staple rares when they rotate out of Standard so I’ll basically be playing Extended on a budget unless I can bum cards off people. I haven’t done any testing in Extended lately because I’m trying to focus on my Limited game for the Limited PTQ season right now. I’m not sure what I’ll play, but I really like Ethersworn Canonist right now…

B: Favorite Magic card of all time?
M: Tough one… Maybe Eternal Witness.

B: Favorite Shards of Alara card?
M: Sprouting Thrinax.

B: Favorite non-Magic game?
M: Guitar Hero/Rock Band

B: Favorite movie?
M: I don’t have a favorite, I like a lot of movies.

B: Favorite band?
M: Barenaked Ladies

B: Favorite TV show?
M: Monk

Thanks for the insight into this cool deck, Michael, and best of luck at those PTQs! I think Michael’s got the skills to take it to the next level and make one of the Pro Tours one day.

As I was watching Michael’s Top 4 match, I glanced over at the other table and noted there wasn’t a single Cryptic Command deck being played! Watching Michael do so well certainly helped brighten my mood, and seeing Cryptic Command — as well as Five-Color Control and Tribal decks — shut out of the Top 4 of the Virginia State Champs really helped restore my faith in Standard. I was hoping to see what other four decks rounded out the Top 8, but as of this writing the decks weren’t posted on Star City yet. Now, I’m sure there will be plenty other State Champs where the evil metagame trifecta ruled with an iron grip; however, at least here in Virginia, other decks can fight and win. Sic Semper Tyrannis — the state motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, baby! Our state seal shows Virtue, sword in hand, with her foot on the prostrate form of Tyranny, whose crown lies nearby. With hard work and patience, Virginia Champs (at least) shows it’s possible to conquer the despots of Standard. And thank goodness for that…

All right people, that’s it for this week. Take care!


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

Listening to:
Set Out Running, Neko Case
Teen Age Riot, Sonic Youth
Love is the Seventh Wave, The Duhks
Pump Up the Jam, Technotronic
Running Down the Hill, Laurie Berkner