Jumping back into Standard metagame, today I want to talk about a pair of midrange decks that don’t involve casting Angel of Serenity. A novel suggestion I know, but don’t worry if it sounds like I’m going too far off the rails—both feature the full set of Thragtusk. In all seriousness, I can’t agree with the sentiment that Thragtusk somehow destroys the diversity of Standard, or that I’m supposed to rally for a ban after the Titans just rotated. Thragtusk is a powerful card that will never be bad. That strikes me as more similar to Green Sun’s Zenith or Bloodbraid Elf than something that requires an administrative answer.
I also don’t understand the goal behind playing a lot of cards aimed specifically at Thragtusk itself, instead of what Thragtusk accomplishes. Instead of building a deck to consistently deal 20, you should seek to deal 30 instead. If you play a board-based attrition deck, why not focus on other ways to get ahead and make 3/3s into irrelevant cards? Cards like [card olivia voldaren]Olivia[/card] and Rakdos’s Return are great ways to interact with durdle-house Thragtusk decks, and the same with circumventing them with huge flyers like Thundermaw Hellkite, Sigarda, Host of Herons, and Angel of Serenity. If you want a more controlling approach, then perhaps you should start with a card like Martial Law or [card tamiyo, the moon sage]Tamiyo[/card] or [card garruk, primal hunter]Garruk[/card]. Oh and counterspells exist—no decks running Thragtusk even run Cavern of Souls to fight back? Well I guess you have a [card essence scatter]two[/card]-, [card dissipate]three[/card]-, and [card rewind]four[/card]-mana answer that beats one.
I’m not saying that Thragtusk isn’t a warping card, it very clearly is. It’s also true that Thragtusk creates game-states that take too long or inevitably drag the game into long grinds. But there are always warping cards in any metagame. And while Thragtusk is a good one, it doesn’t completely shelve a bunch of decks because they couldn’t interact with a Primeval Titan or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. What does Thragtusk really take out of the metagame? Only hyper-aggressive decks trying to win the game with a handful of burn and tiny creatures, and even those decks still aren’t unplayable. They can easily be viable again, simply by going bigger, instead of just shifting deck chairs around on the Titanic. Hell, that’s less decks then Mana Leak and [card sword of war and peace]Swords[/card] cut out of the metagame in their heyday.
While I can understand the frustration, I’d be hard pressed to argue that this format is somehow worse than any Standard in the last two years. With that issue tackled, let’s move onto the good stuff.
While people largely consider it a pile of good cards with no clear plan, Jund still has a ton of raw power, and you can give it some direction. For example, Batutinha’s builds are all centered around board control and dragging the game out. What surprises me most is how reliant the decks are on the few ways they do have to get ahead after trading at parity for most of the game. This is starting to change with people running maindeck Underworld Connections and more planeswalkers. Still, I feel like everyone is locking in on this very small subset of the deck and ignoring other methods of dealing with the ‘draw the wrong half of your deck’ issue.
Of course you could go another direction, and my original Jund list from a few weeks ago showcased a more fluid build. With Reanimator, UWR, UW, and other non-Zombies decks getting a bump in popularity with various refinements, you should lean toward a more proactive strategy with your base. So instead of going full-on board control, I’ve been trying out a far more aggressive plan to pressure and force interaction from opponents.
Instead of even attempting to compete for the long game, you can apply pressure early with cards that still give value down the line. None of them are Angel-proof, but knocking them into single-digits and playing a Thundermaw Hellkite to match their Angel isn’t exactly a poor strategy. Simply casting Fireball at the dome when the game had starts slipping is a solid plan. I’d much rather play this type of aggressive Jund strategy over the board control one and I don’t think it’s particularly close, especially now that many builds cut Lingering Souls down, which makes the lack of trample a non-issue. You get the best aggressive flyers in the format and arguably the best two- and three-drop for aggressive purposes as well. You also aren’t forced to curve out nearly as much as other aggressive decks, since you still have the tools to interact in fair games and you have a lot of ways to bash through blockers.
I’m trying out Rancor, as the original listing simply had the 4th Hellkite and Searing Spear to help out the burn section. Over time, though, I found Rancor let my guys battle through just as well, and a Lotleth Troll or [card geralf's messenger]Messenger[/card] with a Rancor attached is a very scary thing. The deck is clearly too slow to just out-aggro every deck in the format, but you do have curve out draws where you crush the opponent, and others where you can effectively deal with a Thragtusk or Angel of Serenity, and not rely on Rakdos Cackler to finish the game.
Moving on from Jund, I wanted to find a deck that still did powerful things in the three- to five-mana ranges and didn’t get rolled in an attrition war by Thragtusk. Jund has some of what I needed, but in the end I wanted more. Restoration Angel is a card? Well if you insist:
Why play this deck?
For my money, Thragtusk, Thundermaw Hellkite, and Restoration Angel are three of the best cards in this format. This deck has all of them together, which only accentuates how good they are. It just throws in a handful of cards that let them excel at brawling. You get access to Garruk, Primal Hunter, which is the best planeswalker in the format, and Devil’s Play which is a big game when about half the decks in the format all want to durdle and you have time to double fireball. Besides all this, you gain access to the best acceleration and fixing in Avacyn’s Pilgrim and Farseek, the best all-around answer in Oblivion Ring, and [card sigarda, host of herons]Sigarda[/card], which just kills certain decks if it resolves.
So far I’ve played around 50 matches with this online, including four 8-mans and four Daily Events. For the DEs I cashed one, split the last round of one to go to bed, and lost the final round of the other two in rather sad fashion. In my first DE, I simply wasn’t sure how I should sideboard, and was punished accordingly in both of my match losses. In the other I simply mulliganed or flooded into oblivion in three of the games I lost.
As it turns out, a red deck can still get there, even against [card centaur healer]Healer[/card], [card huntmaster of the fells]Huntmaster[/card], and Thragtusk. I fared better in 8-mans with a pair of wins and a finals respectively. Overall, not great, because the number of losses to the deck itself were a little higher than expected and the Daily results just weren’t good enough.
There are three issues that I’ll continue to work on moving forward. First off, the mana is just wretched without Stomping Ground. It isn’t quite the lolfest of Reanimator at times, but it can be very embarrassing to have a hand where you can’t play a single untapped land until turn three, or not have the second red to slam Hellkite on the table. Some of these extra losses I got in the Dailies can be placed solely on the back of the mana. However, it does have a fair amount of mitigation thanks to [card avacyn's pilgrim]Pilgrim[/card], Farseek, and Borderland Ranger. Arbor Elf is the worst mana dork by far, however. At this point I’m probably going to remove him entirely for another Borderland Ranger or possibly even try Mana Bloom as a turn 2 accelerant that can’t die to removal and still gives me the extra mana I need on turn three or four.
The only thing I like about the mana base is that Kessig Wolf Run is one of the best mana sinks, and splashing for white is almost free. Gavony Township isn’t anywhere near the level it is in this Naya deck as it was in Naya of old. You don’t want to screw around and try to make your army bigger, especially in a format where 3/3s are the gold standard. Kessig Wolf Run lets you force through damage so you can eventually kill with trample, so Devil’s play or Hellkite is very important. So, you do get the second best utility land around, you just don’t get sweet mana-fixing from your duals.
The second issue is that an unchecked [card olivia voldaren]Olivia[/card] dominates this deck, but I think a combination of Devil’s Play, Oblivion Ring, Selesnya Charm, and Crushing Vines or Plummet is enough to keep her in check. Additionally, Sigarda is nearly as good against Jund as Olivia is against this deck, and with Kessig Wolf Run in play she’s effectively unbeatable. Still, Olivia is a pain in the rear, and game one you only have access to a handful of answers. Angel of Serenity is like a one-shot Olivia that can easily be raced and doesn’t affect you until late in the game.
The final issue is the curve, as has been pointed out to over and over again. Simply put, this is not a normal curve and it doesn’t function like one which sometimes means your S.O.L. against aggro strategies or a strong UWR Tempo start. This deck doesn’t really have power cards under four mana, and it could easily be renamed fivedrops.dek. This doesn’t make the deck outright unplayable though, because of how the metagame has shifted and continues to shift away from aggressive plans and linear decks in general. Look at the best five decks in the format:
UW/UWR Angel Tempo
Arguably you could swap some of these for Zombies or GW Aggro. The specifics aren’t entirely relevant, the basic point is that just blasting off five-drops is not only feasible in many of these matches, it’s outright desirable! Esper and Bant are both going to sit there for years and you can keep four lands, triple fives and win easily from there depending on the type of hand they have. Reanimator and Tempo both require more action early on, but powering out fours and fives that actually make an impact is a hell of a lot better than trying to burn them out, or interacting with a bunch of x/2s. Depending on Jund’s hand, they may kill your first three spells and then weep when the final haymaker sticks and kills them.
Plus, while I may be a complete dog to hyper aggression game one, in games two and three I have plenty of ways to interact on equal or positive value through Burning Oil, Selesnya Charm, [card oblivion ring]O-Ring[/card], Centaur Healer, and everything at four mana and above.
For those who like actual deck breakdowns, once I found a build I was comfortable with, I did record my results from the matches I played in the queues.
Total Matches – 52 / Games – 111
W / L (Matches) W / L (Games)
Reanimator: 8-5 (18-11)
Jund: 6-5 (12-11)
GW Aggro: 3-2 (7-5)
UW DrawGo: 1-4 (3-8)
Mono Red: 7-3 (14-7)
Zombies: 1-0 (2-0)
Bant Control: 3-1 (7-2)
Esper Control: 2-0 (4-0)
Now obviously this isn’t a huge sample size, and some of these matches easily could have gone the other way. The worst matchups were Jund and UW DrawGo, the former for the obvious reason of having a million spot-removal spells and Olivia. The latter showcases how strong countermagic can be in a format based around mostly mid- and high-end creatures like [card huntmaster of the fells]Huntmaster[/card], Thragtusk, Angel of Serenity, and others, with everyone relying solely on board control and a handful of expensive ways or attackable ways to stay ahead.
As for the UW Midrange/Tempo decks, Naya smacks right into the brick wall that is countermagic. With these decks typically running 7-10 pieces of countermagic, sometimes with [card snapcaster mage]Snapcasters[/card] and [card restoration angel]Angels[/card] to rebuy, Naya is in deep trouble unless you can simply run them out of spells. One game illustrated this beautifully where I had four consecutive spells countered on the play thanks to Essence Scatter. Not only did it stop my early threat, but it was a counter I couldn’t simply play around a la Mana Leak or Syncopate, I cast my Restoration Angel and it was countered no matter how much I had open. It is also capable of profitably trading with Resto, and the end game of either Runechanter’s Pike on a flyer or Thundermaw Hellkite in the red version are both very scary clocks that aren’t easy to deal with.
If these decks continue to grow in popularity then Naya will have a very short-shelf life along with Jund and a host of other midrange decks without a gimmick. Of course when that happens it’ll be time for Cavern to come back to the limelight and people will reconfigure their decks accordingly. If UW and UWR catch on then my short-term solution is to sideboard in Cavern of Souls and tweak the creature base toward either Angels or Humans. Loxodon Smiter also suddenly becomes a real option instead of the obligatory 4/4 that GW Aggro has to play for lack of anything else to do. Just resolve a Sigarda or something reasonable and crush them with Cavern.
The alternative to my aggressive build is to go even BIGGER and add Angel of Serenity into the deck which Adam Witton demonstrates perfectly with his GP Auckland Top 8 Naya list.
I thought my deck was top heavy, but this one kicks it up a notch with sevens and even more five-drops in the sideboard, along with Bonfire of the Damned and Devil’s Play. I actually tried Bonfire of the Damned assuming it’d be a perfect fit in the deck, and while it takes advantage of it as well as any deck is capable of—It’s still pretty meh. I’d rather have Devil’s Play given a choice.
Bonfire just doesn’t kill all that much in a world full of midrange and control decks, and even when the card is awesome, typically Devil’s Play would have won the same game simply taking a turn longer to do so. The days of midrange decks full of creatures with two or less toughness are gone, and half the creatures you want to have a removal spell against are 4 toughness or bigger. Devil’s Play also gives you a real answer to an opposing Garruk, Tamiyo, or Jace, instead of hoping a Bonfire for two or three clears enough of the board to allow for a relevant attack.
So which version is better? I couldn’t tell you without fully exploring Angel of Serenity in the deck, though I have to imagine it only helps against Jund and Reanimator if you hit the mana in time while adding another card that easily gets countered against Island decks. Is comes down to how consistently the deck can hit WWW and seven mana by turn 10. This deck looks like it could even run Terminus if it needed it for the midrange mirrors, simply because you don’t mind trading early and just playing more five-drops post -sweeper to end the game.
That’s it for this time around, hopefully by the end of the week I’ll have the contest results up. Until then!