Rome has come and gone… well at least the World Championships have done so, as I am writing this from my hotel room in the heart of Rome, and I unfortunately failed to make Top 8 despite being well positioned to do so going into day 3. I managed to go 5-1 on both the Standard portion (which I will focus on today) and the Limited portion. Because of this, going into day 3, I decided that my best bet was to play it safe as I only needed 3 wins. Playing it safe meant playing the best deck, which was bound to be a Zoo deck. I turned to a quick Zoo list built by Ben Rubin but only managed a pathetic 1-4-1 finish to day 3 (I.D.ing the last round to grant my opponent a qualification for San Diego).
Now, it is easy to point at the build I was running and claim that it was inferior in some way, but in reality, I have to take full responsibility for my record on day 3. I knew the stakes and left my fate in the hands of a deck I had rarely piloted. In addition, I understood that playing it safe was the best strategy, and yet failed to move one level above that and prey on all of the other people playing it safe with equivalent records. If I had played Martyr for example, I would have easily gone 5-1 or better assuming similar matchups. Instead, I ran into 3 decks playing Blood Moon, for which my list had no outs, 2 Zoo decks, that I was happy to face and gave me my win and draw, and a Hypergenesis deck that happened to have the nuts in 2 of 3 games.
Had I been on the top of my game and either played what I knew, or played what I knew could win, I would have a Top 8 and potential win to show for it. That said, I do feel proud of myself that I was able to set aside any ego I may be perceived to have and just play the best deck. I prioritized winning over running my own brew despite having one available and that show me a lot about how far I have come as a Magic player. Two years ago I would have played my own brew every time in that situation, showing off my deckbuilding skills, but now I was able to put winning first and that is a huge stepping stone for any deckbuilder.
Anyway, back to the interesting parts, the stuff that got me to a 10-2 record in the first place. I did do a deck tech on my deck for the Standard portion, but obviously feel like I can go into more detail here. For reference, here is the list I played:
Magical Christmas Land
This deck came about after I was inspired by Warp World. I had figured the best way to abuse Warp World in the format was to destroy my opponents lands as they would both set them back on permanents and grant me some sweet ETB effects like Acidic Slime for post-Warp World. I found out that as good as the land death was for me, Warp World was just such an unknown. I would sometimes have my opponent on something like like 5 permanents to my 12 and they would flip up 2 Broodmate Dragons to my board of Baloths and Slimes and I would subsequently die after passing the turn.
I searched out some other big sorcery to spend the decks explosive mana on and ran into Violent Ultimatum. I immediately recalled all of the arguing over the Lotus Cobra when it was first spoiled, with the defenders of it spouting off fairy tales of turn 3 Violent or Cruel Ultimatums and its prosecutors firing back with the argument to be more realistic and quit living in Magic Christmas Land. I was one of those naysayers.
Lotus Cobra is the trickiest piece to the puzzle that goes into making a deck like this. It s not so much that he is essential to the deck’s strategy, as he isn’t, but the trick is rather in finding the perfect balancing point for him. Most decks fall under a polar side for the Cobra, either relying too heavily on it leading to a situation where if he dies and your deck performs miserably; or not taking full advantage of the Cobra, instead playing him as a decoy that helps a little, but is rarely explosive. In a mana ramp/land death strategy like this however, you are able to fully exploit the Cobra without relying on it.
Games tend to play out in one of three ways: 1) You have a Cobra that lives and explode early for a nearly unbeatable start. 2) You have a Khalni Heart Expedition that mimics the Cobra, usually allowing the same start about a turn slower. 3) Your missing both 2-drop accelerants and instead curve out with a land death strategy beginning at Goblin Ruinblaster (or Slime if you have a Harrow) and ending at Violent Ultimatum.
Land death spells that range from 4 to 7 mana hardly seem unfair, unlike previous strategies that abused things like Stone Rain, yet in a format where the mana is so bad and everything enters the battlefield tapped, they definitely get the job done. One key thing to point out is that for the few extra mana you end up spending on your land death spells, you gain versatility. Acidic Slime and Mold Shambler for example do a lot more than blow up a land, which is very important for matchups like Elves and Boros who could care less about the loss of a land or two. Instead, there you get to blow up a ‘Walker, or run out a Hill Giant, both of which are respectively fine. Interestingly enough, one of the matchups where your land death is at its worst, Elves, your Lotus Cobra never dies which counteracts that fact quite nicely.
After playing the format a ton, I realized there were very few strategies that were comparable on power level to Jund, which would lead to a lot of players simply choosing the “Join em” side over the “Beat em” camp. Magical Christmas Land had a very good matchup against Jund, with the only real losses coming to a turn 2 Putrid Leech on the play followed by a threat or Blightning on turn 3; in other words, the nuts. Beyond those starts though, you are able to punish them for their shaky mana base and ultimately cap off the fun with a Baloth or Ultimatum. Rampaging Baloths is definitely better against Jund than Ob Nixilis is, which is why the move from 3-3 to 4-2 happened.
Although Violent Ultimatum was fine against Jund, it doesn’t quite recover from Blightnings in the way that you would like. This led to the big 4x Cruel Ultimatum in the sideboard. I was basically looking for a Mind Shatter effect but then wanted a life gain effect against Red. Unfortunately, the slots weren’t there to support multiple cards and still give me a card to push through Jund. Cruel Ultimatum did accomplish all three tasks, however, and after some basics were added to the board, 4 Cruels fit right in. I was a little worried about running 4, but in the final round of Standard I managed to cast a Cruel on turns 5, 6, and 8 of game three, plus a turn 4 Cruel in game 2 to easily win that match. Due to the high velocity of deck thinning in here, one Cruel will often find you another, allowing you to chain them back to back for 2 or 3 turns.
Boros and Elves were still not the greatest matchups, with Elves being a coin flip or slightly favorable for game 1 and Boros being a pretty big favorite game 1; something like 35-65 in favor of the bad guys. Caldera Hellion and Jund Charm came in to help out those matchups, as well as the 4th Terminate. I originally thought that Jund Charm would be enough to contain Elves as well, but after playing the matchup a bunch, we quickly realized that 3 toughness was the key number and Hellion was added accordingly. Because of this, Elves quickly moved to a pretty favorable matchup. Boros was a bit trickier, as even with the clasm effects, they could still steal a win. Tight play is definitely rewarded in that matchup and minimizing the damage you take is key. Other than Lotus Cobra, every creature you have should be jumping in front of their guys at all times.
Other than Boros, the only matchup I felt was hugely against our favor was the Mono Red decks. Unfortunately, I ran into one in round 3 and found myself mulliganing to 5 in two straight games, and of course seeing a Blightning across the table on turn 3 in both as well. Cruels come in to give you a fighting chance, but unless you manage to get one off by about turn 6, things look grim. If however, you do manage to resolve a Cruel, it is very difficult to lose as they no longer have burn and you have a ton of gas, not to mention life, to set them back.
Although I am fairly fluid in my sideboarding over the course of a tournament, as no two decks are the same, (for example, I ran into an Elves deck with Maelstrom Pulse and Duress) here is a quick sideboarding guide for the deck.
If you see a Thought Hemorrhage from them in game 2, despite it not being that good, they will undoubtedly name Violent Ultimatum. Once they realize that you have boarded them all out, future Thought Hemorrhages will change to Cruel, so you should look into staggering them for game 3, something like a 3-2 Split in favor of Cruel.
You can also mess with bringing in multiple Jund Charms here, as I know I brought 2 in during one of my Elves matchups.
If they are splashing black and you have seen non-basics, consider leaving in the Ruinblasters. What you take out at that point is going to be on a case by case basis.
Acidic Slime is actually fine in this matchup as he trades and takes out of one Boros’ 9 or so mana producing lands, but Hellion is just better, especially as Jund Charms come in. Keep in mind the fact about Boros not running many mana producing lands and blow them up when the opportunity arises as this will prevent Ranger explosions late in the game.
X/X/X Planeswalker Control
This matchup is pretty easy and you shouldn’t need to do much to win it. Cruel Ultimatum comes in as a Mind Shatter effect to rid them of any answers they may have. Remember to try and keep them off of Hindering Light mana with your land death critters as that card can be a beating against your Ultimatums and is otherwise dead against you. Mold Shambler blows up planeswalkers, so keep him back and play out Slimes etc to take out lands first.
5 Color Cascade
You literally can’t lose this matchup. Terminate is fine for killing off a potential Elf or whatever. They have no way of killing a turn 2 Cobra, and no way of stopping your land death. Enjoy the bye.
I haven’t really tested the Naya matchup as that deck is somewhat new, but I would anticipate it playing out similar to Jund. They have a Nacatl where Jund has Leech etc. Violent Ultimatum seems insane here, so be sure to keep that in.
I am not sure of the longevity of this deck, as it is a little control and a little combo all in one. Historically, those decks get exploited pretty quickly once they are out of the bag, but assuming the mana stays as bad as it is right now, this deck should continue to have a place in the metagame with appropriate changes of course.
Ob Nixilis is probably the weakest card in the deck but definitely has his place. I won at least two games with him as a 24/24 or something similar. Still, I can see the change of adding the 4th Terminate to the maindeck over him as that card came in often and was usually pretty good.
I have heard people immediately look to cut the Savage Lands but I can assure you they are correct. You have no turn 1 plays otherwise, and they allow for smoother mana when you look to cast Cruel Ultimatum out of the board, providing a green mana without impeding the casting of a 7 mana Cruel. Sure, it coming into play tapped on turn 3 or 4 can sometimes suck, but often enough it will be irrelevant and the mana versatility for your 7 mana spells is crucial.
I would at least give this deck a few runs in your States preparation, as it will just win against those unfamiliar with it and still put up quite a game against those that are. Good luck to everyone preparing for States. I am headed back to the States tomorrow and ready to eat some turkey and mashed potatoes. 11 days of Italian food takes its toll for sure. Thanks for reading!