In Development – Lawyers, Guns, and Money – Fine-Tuning Your GWx Deck


I played at Wednesday night Standard at Superstars last week. This mid-week tournament is a nice evening break, sort of like a real-life Standard Daily, with four rounds of play and prizes award on match wins. I ended up playing against one Jund deck and a whopping three GWx Midrange designs, two of them favoring Bant colors and the third Naya. I won two of those matches, but it was my opponent’s summary of the match I lost that really struck me. He said something like this:

“It was dumb. I drew four angels, he didn’t draw any, so I won.”

That pretty much summed it up. In the two games he won, he drew some combination of two angels in each game, be they Emeria Angels, Baneslayers, or the final Battlegrace Angel that killed me in game three, and I did not draw removal in time to kill them, or my own angels in time to kill him.
That is, indeed, a pretty dumb match.

Dumb matches, those where we can’t make a lot of active decisions to control the outcome, are a problem. This isn’t the same concept as the skill-intensive mirror, where we can’t overpower the opponent through better deck choice and are instead forced to outplay them. Instead, this case occurs when we just have to hope that our cards come up in the right order, and if they don’t, we just lose. For a lot of contemporary GWx Midrange decks, this is what the mirror match looks like.

Below, I’m going to outline what I think of as the three core approaches we can take to facing down this increasingly common mirror. I have a favorite that I think is the best, and that coexists well with a strong Jund matchup – since the mirror is rather less likely than Jund, and depending on your metagame may be less common than Boros or RDW matchups as well.

But first, I have a quick remark

Land Matters

One of the potential draws of this column is the fact that I tend to stick with one or two core designs for a while. Consequently, if you choose to play the In Development home game, you’re not going to be stuck swapping out entire decks from week to week. I’ve previously addressed the value of buying complete common/uncommon playsets as a means of cost-effectively increasing your flexibility in deck design and tweaking. Now I’m going to suggest that it’s worth your while to collect good lands.

The deck lists included today use four of the five available Zendikar fetchlands. This means fluidly shifting between them is a touch on the expensive side. However, I think that if you can afford it, you want to collect all of the fetches. They are clearly important in the current Standard, as they power out landfall effects and provide appropriate mana fixing that interacts correctly with the M10 duals. In addition, you’ll want to use them for the coming Extended season and, unlike other lands, they’ll also maintain their utility – and thus their resale value if you don’t play in formats outside of Standard – for near-perpetuity.

More generally, I tend to prioritize lands first when I’m building up my collection of cards from a new set. While we can debate over the specific value of other cards when we’re building deck lists, lands are the structural base that lets us build those lists in the first place. If you have to choose between an “action” card such as some random rare creature and a land, I’d tend to pick the land. It pays off in the long run.

Lawyers, guns, or money?

In addressing the GWx Midrange mirror match, we have three concepts we can try. We can attempt to simply run more good threats than the other guy, hoping to overpower them. We can run more removal than the other guy, hoping to take down all of their game-winning threats while they fail to knock down all of ours. Or we can hope to augment our threats, meaning we have the same threats as the opponent, only better.

Let’s take a look at them in turn, and focus on the ramifications of each approach.

Lawyers (more threats)

The “threat overload” approach is one I’ve already recommended for the Jund matchup. Josh also recommended it in his excellent article on fighting Jund. It might seem natural enough to simply keep applying this approach for the GWx mirror, on the principle that if the other guy has three Baneslayers in his deck to your four, you’re statistically more likely to have a spare one in play at any given moment.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with how this plays out, and they center on how problematic unanswered threats are in this matchup. Imagine that you have four Emeria Angels and four Baneslayers in your deck. The opponent has three Emeria Angels and four Baneslayers in their deck. You play out an Emeria Angel. They kill it. You play out a Baneslayer. They play out a Baneslayer but they happen to have a Noble Hierarch on the battlefield. They now have the “better” Baneslayer, and despite your massive threat being in play, they can start swinging with theirs. The best you can do is swing back and try to slow the bleeding while you hope to peel another good card before they do.

The basic problem here is that the occasional extra threat, even on the board, is not a trump in the mirror. Sometimes, this is an interaction issue. In one of my games last week, we both had a roughly equal number of significant threats out. However, mine were randomly two [card]Emeria Angel[/card]s and a Knight of the Reliquary, meaning that I could churn through my land to generate a massive horde of Birds. The threats on the other side were equivalent on a one-to-one basis, but were no match for the synergy I happened to draw into during this particular game. However, if the opponent had perhaps drawn a removal spell in place of one of their threats, they could have killed my Knight, and the situation would be closer to a bunch of one-to-one standoffs between the remaining threats.

Guns (more removal)

In this approach, instead of trying to pack in more threats, we opt to side out some of our threats in favor of removal. This avoids the “standoff, but I’ve got the better guys” issue above, but does present the problem of ending up with an entirely reactive hand.

The case against packing more removal is clearly the “actionless hand” problem. The case for it, however, is that you aren’t going to randomly lose to your opponent’s topdecked threat. To put that another way, if two GWx decks simply randomized their threats and played them out one per turn, one of the decks would randomly lose to a better threat order from the other (again, consider my happenstance of random synergy, above). In contrast, if one of the decks gets to have some subset of those threats be replaced by removal, it can selectively kill the opponent’s threats that are most problematic, and then win based on having not just more threats on the field, but having the best combination of threats on the field.

Money (making your threats better)

This is the approach I favored in last week’s deck list. For the GWx mirror, I planned to bring in Behemoth Sledge and two copies of Ajani Goldmane. Similarly, many other GWx decks run Honor of the Pure, Vines of Vastwood, or Brave the Elements. The overarching principle here is that if you’re both going to be running basically the same threats, then you can have the “better” version of each threat. Do they have a Baneslayer? Well, you can have one with a +1/+1 counter on it from Ajani.

The case for this approach is that it tends to not just make your big threats better, but to also make your utility cards into threats. This is why I’ve liked Ajani in these decks, since Ajani makes your Hierarchs, Birds, and Elves into legitimate concerns for your opponent (not to mention what he does with all those Emeria-summoned birds). This helps prevent stalemates. If both sides are stuck with a handful of Noble Hierarchs but you also have a Behemoth Sledge, then you just win.

The case against this approach, however, is that these augmentation cards are even deader than removal in many cases. If your threats are all gone, a topdecked Honor of the Pure is depressing. Similarly, Ajani may be able to pump your Hierarchs incrementally, but he won’t last long with a Baneslayer on the other side, and your opponent isn’t going to care that you can swing with some 1/2 vigilant Druids. It does no good to have the better Birds of Paradise if your opponent has an active Emeria Angel.

Guns, guns, guns

My preference at the moment is to pack more removal. In a mirror match where you can randomly win or randomly lose based on threat order and concomitant synergies, I think the easiest way to improve our chances overall is to buffer against random loss. As a consequence, I prefer to have more available removal to take out key threats.

A major consequence of this approach is that you need to actually pay attention to what matters in each individual game. You don’t just want to try the Jund approach of killing your way through all your opponent’s threats, only to find that you could have been chump blocking that Knight with soldier tokens all day long, but that their topdecked Baneslayer is going to murder you. Be aware of your current threat synergies and how that interacts with your opponent’s threats. If you can clog up the ground and rule the skies, then absolutely kill every major flyer they cast. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to swarm them with Birds off your Knight-Angel engine, then make sure you don’t let them get an Emeria Angel up and running to gum up the air.

The downside here is that this means you have to pay a lot of attention during the game. The upside is that you now have the flexibility to outplay your opponent, instead of just hoping your topdeck is better than theirs.

Three variations on GWx

With this new mirror-match concept in mind, here are three GWx deck lists I’m favoring at the moment. As always, remember to tailor your builds to your local metagame.

GWB Emeria Knight

This deck is the closest to the one I discussed last week and ran at Wednesday Standard. Note that I’m giving Nissa a rest for a bit, not because she’s bad, but because I like to explore my options.

This deck, like all the ones I’ll discuss today, features a core threat package of four Knights, four Emeria Angels, and four Elspeths. I feel like these are your big-time game winners, and the Angels and Knights are never sided out (and Elspeth only rarely). I’m experimenting with Ant Queen at the top of the curve, on the basis that Jund is especially bad against “threats that generate threats.” You can, of course, just directly port in Baneslayers in that slot.

Sideboarding notes:

Versus Jund

+4 Celestial Purge
-4 Maelstrom Pulse (unless they side in Bloodwitches, in which case -4 Path)

Versus GWx

+3 Doom Blade
-3 Ant Queen

Versus Boros/RDW

+4 Celestial Purge
+3 Doom Blade
-4 Maelstrom Pulse
-3 Ant Queen

Naya Emeria Knight

In the Naya build, we gain Ajani and Thoctars, both of which are awesome threats. I choose to run Burst Lightning over Lightning Bolt following Tom Ross’s reasoning. Although they’re saddeningly slower than the Arid Mesas, the Terramorphics are there to stabilize the mana base and help power the Knights and Angels.

Sideboarding notes:

Versus Jund

+4 Celestial Purge
+2 Ranger of Eos
-4 Path to Exile
-1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
-1 Ajani Vengeant

Versus GWx

+1 Gargoyle Castle
+3 Oblivion Ring
-1 Mountain
-2 Ranger of Eos
-1 Ajani Vengeant

Versus Boros/RDW

+1 Kabira Crossroads
+1 Ajani Vengeant
-1 Plains
-1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant

Bant Emeria Knight

At the moment, I’m fondest of this design. Rhox War Monk is a tremendously powerful three-drop, and [card]Bant Charm[/card] is a near-universally useful piece of removal, especially against things like Thornlings from opposing GWx decks.

Sideboarding notes:

Versus Jund

+4 Celestial Purge
+1 Ant Queen
-4 Path to Exile
-1 Martial Coup

Versus GWx

+1 Gargoyle Castle
+3 Oblivion Ring
-1 Plains
-3 Ant Queen

Versus Boros/RDW

+1 Kabira Crossroads
-1 Plains

Introducing asymmetry

Any time a matchup feels essentially random – to the point where we can’t even outplay the opponent – it suggests an opportunity to introduce useful asymmetries that will give us an edge. You can watch this development process in action in Jund lists right now, and it’s going to be increasingly important to put some real thought into it for the other major archetypes as they become more established. After all, the only time we really want to be running without decisions is when we’ve engineered a matchup to be crushingly in our favor. The rest of the time, the more handles you give yourself to make choices that let you actively win the game, the better.

26 thoughts on “In Development – Lawyers, Guns, and Money – Fine-Tuning Your GWx Deck”

  1. The beginning story emphasizes the importance of baneslayer angel, which is very true. Then you follow it up with three decks with a total of 0 baneslayers.

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  3. @kyle – Except that I lost to an unanswered Emeria in game two (after killing the first Emeria) and an unanswered _Battlegrace_ in game three (after killing a Baneslayer).

    Whereas in an earlier match, I defeated two Baneslayers with Emeria + Knight. This is my fundamental point — you can’t rely on counterthreats to win this matchup, because you might get the wrong threat for the situation, or they might have removal for your “right” threats.

  4. Why do you play day of judgement if you dont side it in?

    and what if you change the antqueen with thornling witch is in my opinion the strongest card in standart.

    id’ like to play a lot more cards in the third deck, but there is no more space 😀
    thats a good sign 😉

    put out the judgement and replace him with baneslayer could be a good idea for mirror, boros, and jund.
    as you do i would play the bant charm version. it just looks more solid

  5. Why dont u at least play 1 or 2 VastWoods instead of 6 forests ? 4 forest 2 vastwood oran riefs .. !?

    Its just better ? Or is it not worth the possible delay if its one of your first 2-3 lands ?

  6. I really like your analysis Alex, and I feel like I learn more from your articles than from anyone else’s at the moment. I don’t have any untested ‘improvements’ for your decklists, to be honest I didn’t pay that much attention to them.
    However I got a lot out of the discussion about what is important in this style of deck, and I can apply this theory and way of thinking to my own decks and matchup issues. So, thanks heaps.

    Also you’re spot on about buying lands first. Rare lands are basically currency for one thing, and while you might be deciding between Baneslayer, or Ant Queen, or etcetera, the first name on the team sheet is always gonna be some number of Sunpetal Groves.

  7. The first deck has a whopping 26 spells that cost 3+ mana and only 6 accelerators, all of which die to burst lightning/lightning bolt, which are everywhere. Is that a bad joke or something?

  8. wow, these decks are all pretty awful, basically a baneslayer deck without baneslayers?
    Almost all the strategies you give for the mirror are all terrible for the jund matchup (yay, more removal… How do you feel when you pulse a bloodbraid?), and not even that backbreaking against the mirror: I guess adding removal that’s cheaper than the threats you’re fighting is something really new!
    Trying to gain advantage in the mirror is pointless when your deck isn’t the dominant one: you’ll lose the elements you have against the best deck, you’ll still get steamrolled by random control decks, and for what? To get an edge in a coinflip. If your meta is full of mirrors, what’s better: casting pulses or bant charm (yay a terrible pulse that’s harder to cast!) on five-drops and getting your five-drops pulsed, or attacking for three while terminating the slow guys? Not saying you should play jund: I hate this deck more than any other in history
    By the way: Ant Queen? Basically a Baneslayer that doesn’t gain you life, or gives you reach, and on top of that you have to spend six more mana to make it useful? At least it can feed monument but oh, you’re not playing it (not that you should) !
    Sorry for the rant, but this was just too much crap:
    “Rhox War Monk is a tremendously powerful three-drop”
    “Ajani and Thoctar, both of which are awesome threats”
    It felt like reading the spoiler from shards of alara. You mean, if I splash blue I should play the only playable blue creature in the format? Really? That’s helpful, as I was just thinking about adding sea serpent. The Rhino is a perfect example of how flawed your reasoning is: in what aspect adding another midrangy creature is goind to help your matchups? How does it feel when you hard-cast him on turn 3, or even 2, and your opponent is either waiting to cruel you, removes it for free before attacking for three, or has ernham and juzam djinn attacking you? Same goes for the oblivion rings in the board: They can catch everything, but they are really terrible at it (let’s O-Ring Lynxes so as to take 8 rather than 12, how great is that ! Cool, I can remove the Howling Mine on the draw after my opponent has had his extra card and untapped to have negate up !): your sideboard is there to fix weaknesses.
    I could go on and on (and I already have), but you get the point: as a writer, you have to give us fresh ideas, and in order to do that, you have to work on your articles rather than writing down random thoughts after FNM.

  9. I just like the song reference.

    Well, I went home with the waitress
    The way I always do
    How was I to know
    She was with the Russians, too

    I was gambling in Havana
    I took a little risk
    Send lawyers, guns and money
    Dad, get me out of this

  10. Lands, Commons, and Uncommons are the butter of a deck with good bread. It is good to invest early, if possible, with the exception of “chase” stuff. I waited until last week to get my Misty Rainforests and Lotus Cobras, for example. The reason is that I anticipated their “chase” values to drop, andI could get them when they plateaued to a more affordable price. On the other hand, people all knew Bloodbraid Elf was going to be good when it was spoiled, and I picked up a playset for what people are paying for 1 now. Roll with the punches/trends.

    Always a good read, sir. Not my archetype of deck, but yuo have great analogies to general gameplay.

    BTW: I am unstoppable with my Grixis list right now. I have cut 1 Sorin in favor of 1 Chandra Nalaar. It is sick when I have one of each of those out…so brutal. Thank you again for your input.

  11. @LP Your comment has to be the stupidest comment (among a sea of stupid internet comments) that I’ve ever read.

    Although I find it odd that at least one of his decks didn’t contain Baneslayer Angel, It’s foolish to consider that these decks have little to no merit.

  12. “I really cant take your lists seriously with no BSA.”

    This article, and this whole series really, seems to be much more about exploring deck design, rather than providing ready to play PTQ crushers. Alex says “You can, of course, just directly port in Baneslayers in [Ant Queen] slot.” But when testing a format it sometimes behooves you to test things that are not known quantities.

    For example: Baneslayer is “strictly better” than Battlegrace – except that after the debut of Boros Bushwhacker MTGO queues were flooded with r/w men because the deck was so cheap to assemble. I found that Battlegrace actually let my Naya deck gain life a much needed turn earlier, and thus was the better choice for that specific meta – a change that probably netted me at least +10 packs over the course of a week.

  13. Yeah or you could have a 5/5 first strike Lifelink blocker that turn.
    This isn’t a real deck without BSA. It’s pretty simple. You don’t build Boros without Steppe Linx. You don’t build Jund without BBE. You don’t build GWx without Baneslayer.

  14. Thanks for all the comments. I have to figure I’m courting controversy anytime Baneslayers sit on the notional sidelines. Hopefully a thorough reading of the article will highlight that that’s (1) optional and (2) not really my point.

    @ChriZ – My sideboarding notes were, necessarily, limited. Day of Judgment is the “oh shoot” reset button if your opponent does something uncouth like sideboard into three or four copies of Malakir Bloodwitch, a card you otherwise can’t touch with the vast majority of your deck.

    Also, Thornling is another awesome choice for that top slot, as Tom Ross recently demonstrated. In fact, I’m trying to decide if I just play a couple Thornlings instead of other choices.

    @mrmath – It’s easier than it sounds. Emeria + Knight yields two birds per turn, meaning that you can stall the skies until you draw removal to kill the Baneslayers. This is what I meant when I discussed how “more generic threats” doesn’t automatically win this matchup for us. Heck, I had one game where I’d dropped behind due to early, better threats, then had double Emeria + Knight and just took my opponent out in one cataclysmic turn after filling the skies with birds.

    @PhiL – I’m pondering that option myself, although one thing I appreciate about these decks as they stand is that the tempo is generally quite good.

    @Rafael – Michael Nyberg’s utterly typical Jund list from the St. Loius Standard $5K has 24 cards with CMCs of 3+ with no accelerators. That’s pretty normal for Standard at the moment, outside of Boros, and it paces out well.

    Incidentally, that game where I one-turn killed my opponent happened on the back of three lands and a couple mana dorks.

    @Robin – Thanks for noticing. There’s always a slot for BSA in a GWx deck, if one wants it. But I’m finding that while I can randomly lose to an opposing BSA from time to time, I am not randomly winning because of them nearly as much as I’d like. Thus, my interest in just killing stuff instead.

  15. @LP – Except that sometimes they just burn you out with their reach after you play the blocker; that’s why Battlegrace can be awesome for that matchup. +N life now is sometimes a game win better than the prospect of 5 life one turn later.

    There is no denying that Baneslayer is awesome, but I’m continually finding it’s a disappointingly unreliable awesome in my major matchups (Jund, GWx, Boros). I do, however, love it in its role as a sideboard card in control decks, as in Luis’s latest writing.

  16. @Saymon – Two quick notes. Especially now that I’m getting so many comments on each article, I’m super hesitant to say what is or isn’t obvious to all readers. If those three drops are part of the reason to go into a color, I prefer to make it clear.

    I’m also learning more about how to make my core points clear. After all, I’m not arguing for more removal against Jund. I thought that was obvious from the sideboarding plans where I’m swapping Paths for Purges on a one-for-one basis (upping my N-for-1 quality!), but perhaps I needed to come out and say it more clearly. Here’s the actual high concept for this article:

    “Adding in additional removal from the sideboard gives you an edge in the GWx mirror while not detracting from your ability to make a main deck that is good against Jund.”

    As side points to this high concept, I ended up testing and discovering that the “make your dudes better” and “have more dudes” approaches are bad in the mirror. As it happens, the “make your dudes better” approach is /also/ bad against Jund, so it has two demerits and clearly doesn’t make the cut.

    These aren’t just random post-FNM (or in this case, WNM) thoughts. Instead, my anecdotal experience from one particular Magic tournament spurred a line of thinking and testing, so I use it as a narrative tool to launch my discussion of the topic. I have to hope that this doesn’t confuse readers into thinking that I just came home right afterward, slapped together some deck lists and called it a night. It just seems clunky to come out and say, “And then I tested this approach in 20 sideboarded games…and then I tested this next approach in 20 sideboarded games” and so on, so I don’t.

  17. I personally think the GWB deck is the best of the GWx. It also took a spot in the top8 of the 10k piloted by Matt Yeager. It has a good Jund matchup along with a good boros/rdw matchup. Since it has good matchups against those and tier 2-3 decks then why isnt that the best deck to pilot? Baneslayer isnt a random I win card, its amazing in the GWx decks because they use up their removal on all your other threats and then you drop her and if they dont have an answer they lose. There is a way of playing Slayer right, and a way of playing her wrong. If you play it wrong then yes its a random big huge I win card that randomly wins. If played right then you win with it after setting up your opp multiple turns. Vines of Vastwood is also amazing in the jund/boros/rdw matchups.

    Seriously take a look at Matt Yeagers list, it is very tight. The changes to it are cut the panorama for a swamp and add the 2nd ob nix also cut the 1 eldrazi monument. The deck is amazing and I believe its the best deck to play right now. Pulse is amazing in so many matchups right now that its definately maindeck material in a gwb deck.

  18. Alex I agree completely about a “land first” buying strategy. It’s been painful lately, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy the manland cycle instead of that first booster box.

  19. @saymon- I’m surprised you decide to go after a columnist like alex. Frankly there are writers out there with much better credentials that offer much less content. Alex is telling you what he actually thinks which is much better than someone whose name rhymes with Matrick Mapin. It also seems like some better critical reading skills would have helped you understand where he is coming from.

    @alex- you really don’t have to respond to people ranting if you don’t want to. Sometimes it just validates the offender. Either way don’t let this kinda thing discourage you from sharing your honest thoughts in your column. Thanks for the content.

  20. My personal opinion for the best GW/x deck is GWU. Bant Charm is simply insane, acting as Path 5-8, countermagic, and a better, blue, Shatter. Jenara becomes insane with Noble Hierarchs and, while technically loses card advantage as time goes on (spending mana for the pump cost), is much better in an faster midrange deck. Rhox War Monk fills in the life gain in place of BSA (since I usually run Jenara’s). And as a plus, the faster/aggro GWU version of the GW/x deck is better in the mirror (a result of being faster).

    Baneslayer Angel has become more overestimated than anything else as of late. And while I agree it’s power is incredible, it gets walled by Malakir Bloodwitch, dies to the majority of non-burn removal, and gets outclassed as an aggro tool by cards like Emeria Angel and Battlegrace Angel (which can both provide immediate effects on “turn 5”).

    Personally, my Angels of choice are Shepard of the Lost and Jenara, Asura of War, as most people expect the usual culprits (BSA, EA, BA).

  21. Ajani Goldmane + Master of the Wild Hunt is pretty much the game in the mirror. For that reason I got 2 Master’s MB and 1 SB along with 3 Ajani Goldmane SB. That way in the mirror I drop the Baneslayers for the 3 Ajani and the 3rd master. My opponent will always keep removal up incase Baneslayer comes down but in the mean time Emeria/Master/Elspeth/Ajani are winning the game.

    Give Master a try over Garruk. It works so much better. btw master wont die to blightning and is better against every deck.

  22. I’m not a GWx player, but I enjoyed the article from the same theoretical standpoint that others have mentioned. Keep up the good work!

    Also, quote:
    “@alex- you really don't have to respond to people ranting if you don't want to.”

  23. Alex, don’t be discouraged by the trolls here, your insight is extremely sophisticated and is one of the reasons I prioritize and check ChannelFireball more regularly than SCG (to which I have a paid subscription). People saying “No Baneslayer” have obviously missed the entire point of your article. I mean, did they even read your comment about choosing Ant Queen because it generates more threats? I’d bet money they didn’t, whereas you actually had some higher order analysis going on there.

    Just a question, as I am a law school student, are you implying that lawyers are a “threat” to society or something? 😛 No offense taken, your metaphors are quite interesting and I understood the point. Contrary to “rules lawyers” in M:TG, lawyers in real life are quite necessary to the functioning of society, let’s not engender any lawyer hate here! 🙂

    Anyway, good work!

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