Beating the Big Two in Phoenix

Upcoming this weekend is Grand Prix Phoenix presented by ChannelFireball and Cascade Games. With three other Standard Grand Prix on three different continents in the last two and a half weeks, there has been a ton of information to process. I took a look at the Top 16 decks from Cincinnati and Buenos Aires, as well as the Top 8 decks from Beijing (the Top 16 didn’t seem to be published) to see the breakdown of what has been doing well.

Here is the breakdown of those forty decks:

Revelation Control Decks – 11: (8 Esper, 2 Blue/White, 1 Blue/White/Red) 27.5%

Black Devotion – 11: (8 Mono-Black, 2 Black/White, 1 Black/Red) 27.5%

Blue Devotion – 6: (4 Mono-Blue, 2 Blue/White) 15%

Boros Burn – 5: 12.5%

Jund Monsters – 2: 5%

Golgari Graveyard Deck – 2: 5%

Black/Red Control, Naya Hexproof, Mono-Black Aggro – 1 each: 2.5% each

If you’ve watched any coverage recently, you might not be surprised to see that Revelation Control Decks and Black Devotion decks made up a whopping 55% of the top 40 decks from those three Grand Prix. In this article, I’m going to explore some of the less well known decks that have done well over those events, and discuss how they match up against the “Big Two.”

Black/Red Control by Sebastian Martinez, 8th Place – Grand Prix Buenos Aires

Against Revelation Decks:

The biggest thing this deck has going for it against Revelation decks are the two maindeck copies of Rakdos’s Return. It’s the card that this deck will base its whole game around. The Revelation deck typically tries to trade their cards for yours early, either one for one with cards like Syncopate, Dissolve, or Detention Sphere, or two or more for one with Supreme Verdict. They are then able to refill their hand using Jace, Architect of Thought, or Sphinx’s Revelation. When Rakdos’s Return resolves and you’re able to empty the last few cards out of the control player’s hand, you’ll be so far ahead that they simply can’t come back without being very reliant on topdecking card drawing spells. The threat of Rakdos’s Return is also very important. It’s extremely difficult for a Revelation Control player to tap out to play something like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion if they know that you are threatening to not only empty their hand, but destroy their planeswalker with just one card. One thing that a lot of decks lack as a tool against Revelation Control in current standard is a card which, when it resolves, almost always wins you the game. Rakdos’s Return definitely fits into this category.

Stormbreath Dragon is also a good card against the Revelation decks. Although some of the Esper lists play a copy or two of Doom Blade in their main deck, Stormbreath Dragon will need to be dealt with quickly. For non-black Revelation decks, the only cards that can deal with Stormbreath Dragon once it’s actually on the battlefield are Supreme Verdict and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.

Because Desecration Demon is so big, the Revelation player will usually be forced to spend a card dealing with him and can’t wait around to get more value from a Supreme Verdict. Sometimes the Demon will get hit with a Detention Sphere, but when it’s a Supreme Verdict it both makes it more likely that the Stormbreath Dragon will resolve, and also that it will be able to stay on the table. It is very important to force the Revelation Control player to spend mana on his or her own turn, so it becomes that much easier to resolve a Rakdos’s Return.

Rakdos Keyrune is surprisingly good against the Revelation decks. In combination with Mutavault, it can create a lot of creature pressure without using actual creatures and therefore not vulnerable to Supreme Verdict. Rakdos Keyrune, like Mutavault, is a huge threat to a potential Jace, Architect of Thought, and can often turn it into a four-mana Divination. It is worrisome for a Revelation control player to plus Jace against a deck like this, since it often dies to a Dreadbore or Hero’s Downfall for no value.

Although the one maindeck copy of Ratchet Bomb might seem out of place, it’s quite useful in this matchup. A way to fight Detention Spheres is important. The fact that you can blow them up at the end of the opponent’s turn, and be guaranteed to get an attack out of something like Desecration Demon is also good.

Slaughter Games is a great card out of the sideboard against control decks. Often times, if stripped of their Sphinx’s Revelation, it can be very hard for the control deck to win the game. Slaughter Games also has great synergy with Thoughtseize and Lifebane Zombie, as, if the situation warrants it, you can be sure to get a card out of the Revelation player’s hand and not just his or her library.

Against Mono-Black Devotion:

Mono-Black Devotion is a favorite in the matchup against the black/red control deck because of Underworld Connections. Both decks have similar game plans, with lots of removal and big creatures, but the card drawing engine for the Mono-Black deck is substantially better in this matchup. The one Ratchet Bomb will help to occasionally deal with an Underworld Connections, but often very slowly, after plenty of damage has been done. Read the Bones is very good, but really pales in comparison.

Chandra, Pyromaster is great for fighting the card advantage battle if you can get it to stick. It draws a card every turn without the cost of a life and also without tying up one of your lands. The obvious drawback is that, unlike Underworld Connections, it dies to Hero’s Downfall. This is particualry troublesome because if both players get their card drawing engines going, they are digging to an answer to yours, and you really don’t have one to theirs.

Like against Esper, Rakdos’s Return is very good against Mono-Black Devotion. The games come down to a battle of threats and answers. If you’re able to spend the early turns of a game clearing the opponent’s board of his threats with your answers, then play Rakdos’s Return to strip his hand of his answers before playing your threats, you can see how easily you can close out the game. Obviously Rakdos’s Return is vulnerable to Thoughtseize, but so is everything, so it’s just something that has to be lived with. Also, Rakdos’s Return is significantly worse in games where the opponent has Underworld Connections because of their ability to draw out of it.

Ultimately, the black/red control deck makes some major sacrifices in order to play cards like Anger the Gods, Stormbreath Dragon, Rakdos’s Return, and Dreadbore. While a card like Anger the Gods varies in quality depending on the metagame you are expecting, I wouldn’t expect it to shine in Phoenix because of its weakness against the “big two.” I think Rakdos’s Return is one of the best cards in Standard right now but might not have found the perfect home yet. If I were going to play a Rakdos’s Return deck this weekend, I’d go with the “If you can’t beat them join them” mentality, and play Eric Froehlich’s Mono-Black Devotion deck splashing red. The mana is smoother, the strategies are similar, and you have Underworld Connections, which is one of the best cards against Revelation and the best card against other Mono-Black Devotion strategies. Here is the list for reference :

Black/Red Devotion by Eric Froehlich, 13th place, GP Cincinnati 

Here’s the next deck:

Naya Hexproof by Jacob Maynard, 8th Place – Grand Prix Cincinnati

Against Revelation Decks:

Your strategy with a Naya Hexproof deck is fairly similar against everything: get a big creature into play that can’t be targeted by your opponent, put some enchantments on it, and attack! But jokes aside, it’s more complicated than that. The games against Revelation decks are very often going to come down to one card: Supreme Verdict. Supreme Verdict, and sweeper effects in general, are very difficult for creature decks to play around. You don’t want to over-commit and lose to the sweeper and you don’t want to under-commit and lose to something else. You have to be careful to not allow the control deck enough time to start casting Elspeths or Revelations, and put the game out of reach even without a sweeper. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for the best way to play around Supreme Verdict, and you’ll have to use your best judgement in every situation.

Some things that are important to consider are: if you hold back, and they Verdict anyway, do you have enough left to win the game? If not, just go all-in. If you’re going to lose to Supreme Verdict anyway, then why not? Do you have enough pressure on the board that the opponent even needs to cast Supreme Verdict? If not, you probably need to commit more. Does adding another threat to the board increase your clock? For example, if your opponent is at 8 life, and you have two 5/5 hexproof creatures in play, there’s little reason to add more to the board.

One thing the Naya Hexproof has going for it in this department is Boros Charm. Boros Charm essentially acts as a counterspell for the uncounterable Supreme Verdict. In games where you draw Boros Charm, you can easily commit more and more to the board, as long as you’re able to leave mana up for the Charm. You can make the clock as fast as possible, trying to make sure you’re able to deal lethal damage before the control player is able to play a Verdict with counter backup. I’ve certainly been on the control side of this many times, and frequently have to go with, “Well, I have to cast Supreme Verdict here, if he has the Boros Charm, I’m dead.” It comes up a lot, and there isn’t much the control player can do.

Voice of Resurgence provides a good threat as well as some resilience to Supreme Verdict. The control deck wants to be casting spells during its opponent’s turns, and Voice of Resurgence makes that extremely difficult. Another card that provides good resilience against Supreme Verdict is Selesnya Charm. Holding a Selesnya Charm and something like a Madcap Skills when you have a Voice of Resurgence in play is huge. After a Verdict, instead of doing no damage on the following turn, you have an instant board presence and are attacking for 7 damage right away.

After sideboard, you get to cut some of the creature removal spells, and add more Selesnya Charms as well as Skylasher for more instant creatures. Mending Touch also functions sort of like Boros Charm, in that it saves your best creature from Supreme Verdict.

Against Mono-Black Devotion:

I think Naya Hexproof has the advantage in this matchup. The only tool the black deck has to remove your hexproof creatures is Devour Flesh. Voice of Resurgence is extremely powerful against Devour Flesh, and against removal spells in general. Forcing the black player to cast his or her removal spells on his or own turn is also very beneficial. With Voice of Resurgence in play you are likely going to be able to tell if your opponent has any instant removal spells, since they aren’t going to hold them until your turn and cast them. The most important thing to keep note of is to keep a “back-up creature” in play. What I mean by this is, if you’re creating a giant hexproof monster with a bunch of enchantments, do your best to make sure that you always have something in play to sacrifice to Devour Flesh. Also, remember that if your opponent is able to cast something like Bile Blight on your Voice of Resurgence, they are able to Devour Flesh with the Elemental token trigger on the stack, potentially causing you to sacrifice your important creature.

Selesnya Charm is good here as well. It can be used to make a 2/2 in response to a Devour Flesh, saving your important creature, or it can be used to exile a Desecration Demon. Even with some enchantments, you won’t always be able to attack through a Desecration Demon, so having a couple ways besides the Chained to the Rocks to remove them will prove useful.

Lifebane Zombie is always a concern when you’re playing a deck with green creatures and Naya Hexproof plays 12. Just be aware when you’re playing against Mono-Black devotion decks that you want to get your green creatures out of your hand and into play as quickly as possible. This shouldn’t be that hard for the Gladecover Scout and Voice of Resurgence since they can be played in the first two turns. With Witchstalker, it’s a bit tougher, because on the draw the opponent will be able to cast Lifebane Zombie before you even have the chance to play the Witchstalker. This is just an unfortunate fact of the matchup. Although its brutal when it does happen, it’s not that common, and something we have to live with.

I think Naya Hexproof is fairly well positioned right now, and a defensible choice for Grand Prix Phoenix. I would not be surprised at all to see it put another Top 8 finish.

Golgari Dredge by Ari Lax, 15th – Grand Prix Cincinnati 

Against Revelation Decks:

I had the pleasure of playing Ari’s Golgari Dredge deck in an Open last weekend. I ended up losing a match to Esper, but I think the Dredge deck is a favorite in the matchup. The strategy is generally to get out a small creature, like an Elvish Mystic or Satyr Wayfinder, and then turn it into a threat by bestowing a Herald of Torment or a Nighthowler onto it. Bestow creatures can make it very difficult to play Supreme Verdict, as after the dust has settled the creature that had been bestowed is still on the battlefield, waiting to attack.

Grisly Salvage and Commune with the Gods allow you to rip through your deck, find the creatures that you need, and fill up your graveyard with creatures, hopefully including Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord. Naturally, Jarad is very useful as he will usually be big enough that he must be dealt with. If the control player is unable to remove him with Detention Sphere, he can be a recursive threat that must be dealt with repeatedly. He can also be very dangerous to leave on the board, since something like a Nighthowler or Nemesis of Mortals effectively becomes like a 10-point Fireball for seven mana.

The Golgari Dredge deck tends to do damage in very large chunks. The fact that a Nighthowler bestowed onto a small creature can attack right away makes it feel like your Nighthowlers have haste. Because of how big the Nighthowlers get, this can win a game completely out of nowhere. After sideboard, you’re also going to have access to four Mistcutter Hydra. The Hydra plays very well into the game plan of doing damage in large chunks. As an added bonus, it often requires a Supreme Verdict just to be dealt with because of its immunity to Detention Sphere.

Against Mono-Black Devotion:

The strategy against Mono-Black Devotion is actually similar to the strategy against the control decks. You want to get a small creature out and bestow one of your big creatures onto it, creating a double threat. The black player is going to have to remove the Satyr Wayfinder, or Elvish Mystic, or whatever, and then spend another card and more time to remove the Nighthowler or Herald of Torment itself.

Since the Mono-Black Devotion decks have started to move in the direction of lots of copies of Devour Flesh I like this matchup even more. Devour Flesh is pretty weak against a deck that contains Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, Deathrite Shaman, and Satyr Wayfinder. Many of the black decks only have six targeted removal spells: two Bile Blight and four Hero’s Downfall. If it is going to cost them two of those spells to remove every Nighthowler and every Herald of Torment, you can see how they are going to run out of answers very quickly.

A fast Pack Rat can sometimes be tough to beat, but it is possible to make huge creatures very quickly and either race the Rats or outclass them and force the opponent to spend mana on other things. Lifebane Zombie can also be very annoying as it can remove a Nemesis of Mortals or Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord.

In addition to being a favorite against the Revelation decks, I am confident that the Dredge deck is a favorite against the Mono-Black Devotion strategies. If I were playing the Grand Prix this weekend, this is the deck that I’d play. In addition to being a favorite against the two most popular decks, it’s a lot of fun to boot.

I’ll be playing the Foiled Again Bounty event in Phoenix on Friday Night at 6 p.m. If you’re going to be in town for the Grand Prix, you should consider playing that event. Seven other pros and I are going to have bounties on our heads. If you manage to beat any of us in the event you will win 12 packs! Then on Saturday, as many of you already know, I’ll be making my commentary debut, joining Matt Sperling and repeatedly self-proclaimed coverage guru Luis Scott-Vargas in the booth. If you see me around the venue this weekend, please feel free to say hello. And most importantly, best of luck at the Grand Prix!

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