Initial Technology – A Cruel Look at Standard


Expensive. Game-breaking. Awesome. Cruel Ultimatum is a pretty much everything I like in a spell. It draws cards, gains life, Mind Twists them, and even eats one of their guys. I have to admit, I was pretty jealous when I saw Matt (Sperling) casting Cruel Ultimatum over and over again at the Starcity 5k, which he wrote about here. The good matchup Grixis has against UWR, and the fact that I believed it had the tools to beat Vampires and Jund, led me to try and start casting my own Cruel Ultimatums.

I started with Matt’s list:

I ran this through a bunch of 8-mans, and found a few things that I wanted to change. Four Negates, while solid in the tournament Matt Top 8ed, were just too many for the online metagame. I would have to be pretty convinced that the field was awash with UWR, Grixis, and random Howling Mine-type decks before I would play four Negates in the maindeck again. For the same reason, the maindeck Mind Shatter was just not pulling its weight. I fiddled with the numbers, but then had a flash of inspiration!

The main difference (in terms of the aggro matchups, particularly Jund) between Grixis and UWR was Wall of Denial. If only there was a way to have access to the awesome Black cards (Cruel Ultimatum, Sorin Markov, Mind Shatter, Duress) but still be able to count on the defensive power of Wall of Denial…

Cue greedy.dec (I’m sure many decks have been called that, but this one felt particularly deserving of the name):

This deck does look kind of wild, so let me explain. I knew that Pat Chapin and co. played 4-cc at Worlds, so I looked up the list he suggested after Worlds, mostly for the manabase. I then saw his Esper Charms, and decided that if I was going to be playing the right colors, I might as well upgrade my Divinations into Esper Charms. Maindeck Spreading Seas plus Ajani was good in UWR, so I wanted to try it here as well. Plus, having four cycling cards like Seas really does help any deck flow a little better, which this deck definitely needed. The sideboard looks loose (and is), but I do that when I am testing new decks. Since I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, I added a bunch of sweet cards to see what worked best. Ok, maybe I didn’t really need to know how Nicol Bolas played out, but he seemed like payment, so I threw one in.

Results were mixed. On the one hand, Wall did help quite a bit against Mono-Red and Jund. Just like in UWR, Wall plus removal spells plus Sphinxes got them dead pretty quick, and the addition of Cruel Ultimatums gave me a nice finisher. I went 3-1 in a Daily Event with that list, although minus the Spreading Seas. My loss was to Jund, where I lost to my own manabase, which was not a huge surprise. Additional testing in 8-Mans only confirmed my fears. The spells were good, but the mana got too much worse to really support them. Putting up with awkward mana might have been worth it if the spells I got to cast were completely unreal, but Esper Charm really wasn’t that much better than Divination, and getting to play both Cruel Ultimatum and Wall of Denial didn’t make the deck unfair all of a sudden. Standard is fast, and there aren’t many spells in the format that can get you in the game once you fall behind, so when the deck stalled on a color or whatever, it just died.

I don’t think that the deck is completely unplayable or anything, but it needs more tuning before it can work properly. Perhaps the addition of Traumatic Visions (which Chapin did have, perhaps because they were needed) could help, although I have found it very important to be able to cast Essence Scatter or Flashfreeze on turn two. Once you give up the capability to have a reliable U1 on turn two (or to have it up but then need to spend a turn landcycling to cast the card you should be able to cast on turn three), I again just don’t think the benefits of being four colors are worth it. I like Wall of Denial, and I like Cruel Ultimatum, but as of yet I haven’t been able to successfully fit both.

My quest wasn’t over yet, though. I went back to Grixis, determined to find a configuration I liked. I remade it with 4 Spreading Seas main, since that in theory should have helped in the Jund matchup. However, I was underwhelmed (and hence won’t post the list, since it was basically just the Grixis list above with 4 Seas over some number of other cards). Part of the reason that Spreading Seas was so effective in the UWR list was Ajani Vengeant. If you turned one or two of their lands into Islands, they often would play a tapped M10 dual or Savage Lands on turn three or four, and you could drop Ajani and further manascrew them. The combination of seven land disruption spells was often enough to throw them off their game for a bunch of turns, which combined with the fact that Ajani was a threat in his own right, gave you the advantage you needed. Grixis didn’t have Ajani, so the Spreading Seas were on their own, and sadly weren’t enough. Unless I drew multiples, the Seas didn’t have as big an impact as I was looking for, and Grixis is a more mana-hungry deck to begin with.

UWR can just play a Wall and ignore their first guy, but Grixis needs to answer each and every guy with a counter or removal. Let’s say that Jund is delayed for two turns by a Spreading Seas. UWR can play Wall of Denial, then safely tap out later for Divination or whatever, since it has already dealt with Jund’s first creature. Grixis, on the other hand, doesn’t have that luxury. Its removal and counterspells take mana to function, mana that cannot be spent in advance. Often, the time that Spreading Seas was providing would just go to waste.

So, Spreading Seas were out, and I decided to up the removal count.

Grixis, version 5.0 (I don’t know if 5 is the exact number, but that’s what it is saved as on my Magic Online net deck, so 5.0 it is)



This list I was very happy with. I originally had a third Flashfreeze main, but Jund is on the decline, and I actually started to dislike having so many Flashfreezes main (another point in favor of cutting the Seas). As annoying as it is to draw Flashfreeze against non-Green or Red decks, I am happy that the format is shifting to a place where you can’t count on playing one deck 40% of the time.

I took that list (albeit with +1 Flashfreeze -1 Essence Scatter main, and 3 Nighthawk 2 Bloodwitch 2 Mind Control SB) to a local 2k tournament. I went 5-2, losing to White Weenie and Vampires, although I am pretty sure I made game-losing mistakes in both matches I lost.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with how the deck ran, and have been happy with how it has performed online. I am not winning as much as I was with UWR, but I think UWR really broke the format, which doesn’t happen too often. Of course, by breaking the format with UWR, I would now not recommend playing the deck, since the format shift has accounted for UWR’s success. There isn’t as much Jund, you can’t count on the 4 Flashfreeze 4 Seas being good, more people are playing Vampires (which was not a deck when I played it at the 5k; its popularity now can partially be attributed to how Jeff and I did at that tournament, which doesn’t make me wrong for assuming that Vampires wasn’t a real deck, since it wasn’t at the time), and overall, UWR is just not a good choice. It was good for what the format was, and while I am not going to take that much credit for people moving away from Jund (I think any excuse was really what people needed, since I still don’t know anyone who likes playing Jund), the fact of the matter is that the format is way more diverse now. That diversity makes a deck like UWR worse, since it has so many narrowly-targeted spells, and a deck like Grixis better, since it has access to Cruel Ultimatum and unconditional removal, which are good when you don’t know what you will be facing.

Back to the list:

The one Burst Lightning is there because I didn’t want a fourth Terminate, and Wretched Banquet was just too situational. I was very happy with the Burst, and might consider running a second. With Bolts, Quakes, and Cruels, you have a pretty legitimate shot at just burning them out, and I might even go so far as to cut Sphinx, although that leaves you a bit vulnerable to creature assaults.

The sideboard is pretty awesome. Much like Baneslayers in UWR, I have started to bring in Bloodwitch and Nighthawk more and more, although Bloodwitch more than Nighthawk. Neither Hawk or Witch are quite as powerful as Baneslayer, and I wouldn’t bring in either against Jund, but they both are powerful threats by themselves. Most opponents will take out removal against you, and not much removal even affects the Bloodwitch. Bloodwitch can often stop Luminarch Ascension single-handedly, which is one of the cards people side in against this deck the most. Even on the draw, you get to play the Bloodwitch the turn Luminarch has three counters, and the one point of drain stops it from going off. Then, you probably can stop it from ever getting another counter by bashing with Bloodwitch, leaving them with a useless enchantment and you with a giant threat. That plan might not work against a UW deck with counters, but I have faced more Mono-White or White-Black decks than UW decks, and Bloodwitch is unstoppable against them. The fact that both Bloodwitch and Nighthawk gain you life is also sick, since against Burn decks or Boros they both can buy you plenty of time. I find it funny that a UBR deck has so many lifegain cards (Cruel Ultimatum, Sorin, both types of Vampire, even one Jwar Isle Refuge), and they make the Red matchups just that much better.

The rest of the sideboard is more straightforward, but I will provide a rough guide as to how you should be boarding.

Negate and Flashfreeze are generally the easy cuts, since they quite clearly don’t do anything in some matchups. Similarly, Earthquake, Terminate, Burst Lightning, and Lightning Bolt are pretty useless against many decks, although the Bolts and Burst still have some utility even if it is just burning to the face.

I almost always cut the Sphinxes when I bring in the Vampire package, since you can’t just load up the high end of the curve, and Bloodwitch does the job Sphinx was doing before boarding. Don’t be afraid to switch up the Nighthawk count, since I have often cut them once I see the opponent boarding in Devout Lightcaster, Oblivion Ring, Path to Exile, or Lightning Bolt. Bloodwitch conveniently dodges almost all the removal spells in the format, so she is a pretty safe bet, but there is no point in having Nighthawks if all they do is die to otherwise-useless removal.

Duress and Negate are pretty interchangeable, and I often choose Duress when on the draw against a fast matchup. Against White decks, Duress will help you snag Conqueror’s Pledge, Honor of the Pure, or Brave the Elements at a cheaper cost than Negate, and those are the matchups where speed really matters.

Swerve comes in against Jund, Vampires, or decks that play counterspells (since it straight up can counter a counter by retargeting the counter to Swerve). It might only hit Blightning and possibly Mind Rot against Jund, but they tend to Blightning you a lot, and Mind Rot is becoming much more common. It is such a blowout when you Swerve them, which to me makes up for the games where it sits in your hand. Against Vampires it is pretty sick, since it hits Sign in Blood or Mind Sludge, both of which are normally awesome against you.

You can cut one Cruel, but I would never cut more, and I only cut one against fast Red decks like Boros or Mono-Red. Sorin can go against midrange decks that have few low-toughness men, but that doesn’t occur often, and he is fine against creatureless control decks. Sphinx usually only goes when the Vampires come in, as I described above. The only “uncuttables” in my mind are the 2 Cruels, and everything else can go depending on the circumstances. Don’t be afraid to be flexible while boarding; this deck has a lot of redundancy, so try different plans out and figure out what suits you best.

I briefly mentioned it before, but I want to expand on why I like Grixis. Obvious card-drawing jokes aside, I like having access to these unconditionally powerful spells, and the hand disruption plus counters does a very good job of handling unexpected decks. Duress, Negate, Mind Shatter, Swerve, Double Negative, and Cruel Ultimatum are effective against all sorts of random combo/control decks, whether they are using Howling Mines, Pyromancer Ascension, Valakut, or are just trying to control the game with Blue spells (like UWR or Esper Control). All the removal spells are good against most midrange creature decks (Naya, WGB, etc), and Cruel obviously shines there as well. Even if you don’t want to play Grixis, if you are trying to make a control deck in this format, you should try and play powerful enough cards to keep up with the variety of decks you will face. It may have worked to basically pre-sideboard against Jund in the past, but luckily that seems to have passed, at least for now. Standard is more open than it has been for a while, and you should make the most of it. I don’t think Jund is bad, and in fact, far from it. For whatever reason, we appear to have been granted a temporary reprieve, with the levels of Jund drastically reduced. I can’t speak as to the effectiveness of all of these W/x decks, or Vampires, against Jund, but just from observation I can tell that Jund is greatly on the decline. As a result, the format is much more interesting, and now is a good time to play it!


53 thoughts on “Initial Technology – A Cruel Look at Standard”

  1. I made a build similar to this! I had fun with it at a few fnm’s but it didn’t do so well at the starcity 5k in dallas/fort worth.

  2. LSV what do you think of U/R Control? It seems to have a better match up against Vampires.

    This is my list:
    Lands (25)
    4 Scalding Tarn
    12 Islands
    9 Mountains

    Creatures (4)
    4 Sphinx Jwar Isle

    Non-Creature Spells (31)
    4 Swerve
    4 Lightning Bolt
    4 Double Negative
    4 Negate
    4 Essence Scatter
    3 Into the Roil
    3 Rite of Replication
    3 Burst Lightning
    2 Chandra Nalaar

    3 Volcanic Fallout
    3 Magma Spray
    3 Flashfreeze
    3 Spreading Seas – Will probably go once Mysteries of the Deep is available. It use to be Goblin Ruinblaster
    3 Mindbreak Trap

  3. “Swerve comes in against Jund, Vampires, or decks that play counterspells (since it straight up can counter a counter by retargeting the counter to Swerve).”

    Does Swerve actually work against counters? I was always under the impression that you wouldn’t be able to change a counterspell to target swerve.

  4. you change the target of the counterspell to swerve itself… so the counterspell still goes off.. its just targeting something irrelevant now in the form of swerve… btw.. I love swerve.. there is nothing quite as sweet as swerving a blightning back to a jund player’s face

  5. @sin_plague, nitpick: when the counter tries to resolve, it doesn’t still go off, it finds that, because swerve has resolved and been placed in the graveyard, the counter doesn’t have a legal target and fizzles (unless it has more than one target, ie Cryptic Command bouncing something, in which case it will resolve doing as much as it can).

  6. I was at the same 2k and I can assure you that vampires was the 2nd most if not THE most played deck in the room out of around 100 players. I played vamps and lost to 2 out of 3 mirrors. Control decks simply cant beat it and as long as lsv keeps winning with control, I will continue to play mono b. Lol “not a real deck”

  7. Its a really grear articule, i’ve been playing UWR and its good but grixis seems more impresive now, im going to test it, i hate jund and i was resignated to play it if i want to win, i’ve always loved control decks and this one deserve the test and deserve to be played in tournaments.

  8. I have been playing a casual budget variant of 4cc online for a while and swerve just makes me smile. If Jund ever return to the numbers it once held i would sincerly recomend uping the count in the SB if not main. Its a 2 cmc blowout. Bolt, puls, blightning are all excelent targets. Sign in blood and mind sludge are also great as is any counterspell although only a 1-for-1. A number of spells like duress and cruel state “target opponent” as their legal target though so watch out for that befor you start dreaming. As pointed out it does function as a counter-counter and thus its a viable spell against Jund, vampires and practicaly any deck playing blue. Im a bit surpriced it didnt surface earlier.

    If you find you have troubel with hords of bloodsuckers and recurring ghasts Necromancers covenent have been working as a win con for me. It does require white and does cost you 6 mana but unlike crule it rids you of any blood ghasts and suply both lifegain and blockers. Viable in competetive magic? Perhaps not but I like the idear.

  9. damnit catanese… regular players don’t want to be confused by our silly judge-rules-speak… they just want to know what works, what doesn’t, and what loopholes to exploit

  10. So i was wondering if the night hawks are your replacement for the Wall? Are they in board because you think you will see less Jund? Or What do you specifically think they will be good against?

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  12. Seems like sedraxis specter needs a spot somewhere in the 75. It’s pretty awesome in the mirror, good against jund and good against other slowish/controllish decks.
    As it stands UWR and grixis probably get a huge buff when the new jace enters the format. Not saying she is that fantastic but compared to capsule and divination she is.

  13. maybe the grixis deck is not so bad but there is no reason not to play jund; jund wins against vampire, mono red (with dragon claws in the sb), almost all random decks for example valakut, fog,etc, against UWR the matchup for jund with chandra is also not so bad like it seems in the lsv articles and the grixis matchup is balanced/better;

  14. I have to say that with as many mono red decks as there are, the meta really doesn’t make it easy for grixis. The UWR deck has a much, much better matchup against RDW (and boros for that matter, even if no one really plays it anymore).

    And by the way, I’m not really seeing the fall of jund at all. At least not online. They’re still as abundant as ever, and for good reason, what with vampires gaining popularity and such.

  15. Swerve cannot target a Cryptic that is using bounce/counter as its two modes. The targeting restriction on Swerve is “target spell with a single target”.

    The Crypic in question has two targets (the permanent being bounced and the spell being countered).

  16. It’s an okay article. It doesn’t have so much news value, since.. The online meta game have seemed to have switched twice; first to Grixis Control, second to decks that beat Grixis Control like WB aggro, Jund w.U and straight up Grixis discard. But that’s just my perspective.

    I have never understood why on earth Grixis players keep playing Negate when there is Countersquall. Ya, it costs B, but I have not tried to be stuck on those colors when its needed. And it so often cuts a turn of your clock, when you cut them to 10 with Sorin and follow up with Cruel + bolt. Sure you should have won there non the less, but it still just makes the bolt more deadly. And if opposing decks play a lot of fetches like burn, it really steps up your clock.

    One bad thing about this article is for myself personally. After you write about it everyone will play this deck (and mirrors are truly uninteresting) or decks that has a good matchup. Neither is great for me. 🙂

    Great to have something to read though. And wonderful with fresh approches (although perhaps wasn’t soooo fresh).

  17. Hey LSV… Try Testing & Examining this list.

    3xCruel Ultimatum
    1xSorin Markov
    1xSphinx of Jwar Isle
    2xTraumatic Visions
    2xGarrruk Wildspeaker
    3xAjani Vengeant
    2xMaelstrom Pulse
    4xEsper Charm
    4xWall of Denial
    4xTrace of Abundance
    4xLightning Bolt
    2xArcane Sanctum
    2xCrumbling Necropolis
    1xExotic Orchard
    4XRuptured Spire
    2xSavage Lands
    3xSeaside Citadel

    2xMind Control
    4xBaneslayer Angel
    2xMaelstrom Pulse
    3xLuminarch Ascesion

    I have lost very few games with this list. The games I’v lost have been to been to the mana, however, once you understand your mana you make better mulliganing decisions & I really like I said lose rarely to anything.

    Traum Visions smothes the mana. Harrow Smothes the Mana. Trace is REALLY good. Pulse can hurt multiples but its a great card I’ve been very happy with. Garruk also gives you colors or dudes depending. BTW There is no greater pleasure then casting a 4th Turn Cruel Ultimatum and that can happen frequently with this deck.

    And LSV.. Imagine having Pulse in Grixis or Pulse in RWu.

    In testing this deck sets up much faster then both Grixis and RWu. It plays esentially like RWu with Cruel Ultimatum.

    Thanks =)

  18. Oh and last thing LSV… even if you don’t like the above list can you recommend any better changes to the Mana. And explain why you’d change it if you do. I’d love to get inside of your heads about how to fix mana. Do you use a computer to analyize the deck for mana purposes?

    Oh and those Swerves are Negates lol…. ill double check it better next time I post.


  19. I’m just happy that people are playing bad control decks which makes playing Jund all that much easier, as now there are less mirror matches.

  20. IF Jund is truly on the decline; wouldn’t it go to reason that the new default deck of choice should be Knightfall?? It Beats to bejesus everything OTHER than Jund but just cant even put up relatively respectable numbers against Jund. Otherwise I like the deck. Ive been trying to put the right 75 together in UBR for a while. I do agree with one of the above posters on Sedraxis Spectre. Its very good unchecked against controll dodges earthquakes and is key in dealing with blightnings and similar effects.

  21. @ lsv – why is jace ok in uwr but capsule is better here? is it because jace gets blocks from the wall in uwr? i feel like a deck with this much removal would do fine with a 2 of jace, or perhaps also mind spring…

  22. @ flores’ deck

    I hadn’t read his post about Grixis, although obviously the two decks look fairly similar. I still like Sphinxes, but do agree that Burst Lightning is a nice one. So far I have been happy with this build, but his looks good too. Even though Specter turns on their removal, it’s still a 2 for 1.

    @ montana

    I think Grixis is fine against Vamps. I went 1-1 at that tournament against it, losing a very close match, and so far have beat it more often than I have lost to it online. Also, would people get over the “vampires isn’t a real deck” quote already. It was true when I said it, and in fact it was partially due to my success with UWR that vampires has found a place in the metagame, since an increase in UWR (a bye for vamps) and a decrease in Jund (vamps’ hardest matchup) is part of why vampires is now a real deck, emphasis on the now. Metagame predictions aren’t supposed to be permanent, and my statement was proved correct when I made it (both Jeff and I t8ed, and there were few vamps to be seen anywhere). Just because it is now a deck doesn’t make me retroactively wrong. End rant (just because this is like the 4th time I’ve had to address this issue)


    Knightfall most certainly does not beat Grixis, at least not in my experience. Cruel, Sorin, counters, removal, and especially Bloodwitches out of the board are tailor-made to beat a midrange WG deck with few sources of card advantage. Knightfall may be sick against other decks; that I cant comment on, but I do disagree with you on the Grixis front.


    You are right: the lack of Walls makes Jace too vulnerable in my opinion. Without a wall to stop creatures, you can almost never tap out for jace, and capsule lets you keep counters up, since this deck has way more of them than UWR did.

    I just 4-0ed a Daily Event with the list from the article, so I am in fact playing the exact list I advocated.

  23. i must be really behind in the times. why aren’t you playing sphinx of lost truths? it used to be the bomb when i was playing grixis a while ago.

  24. LSV, do you plan on posting strategy videos that demonstrate some play testing with this deck like you have done with other decks in the past? Or are you too busy with Extended at the moment?

  25. LSV, can you give a brief description of what you like to bring in versus the most common matchups (Jund, the mirror, mono white etc)?

  26. Why does sorin go when you’re playing a mid-range deck with few low-toughness creatures? isn’t the -3 ablility still relevant? And i’m assuming jund doesn’t count as “mid-range with few low toughness creatures”?

  27. LSV to clarify my post, I wasn’t alluding to Knightfall beating the bejesus out of Grixis, allthough my post seems to have included it, I was merely trying to state that in my opinion Knightfall seems the better catch all deck against a field that does not sport more than 35% Jund. In my limited capacity to test and from what I have read in some articles dedicated to match-up percentages, Knightfall doesnt have a horrible game v Grixis, and while Grixis certainly does have the tools to deal with it, It has seemingly fallen very close to an even match in my opinion b/w the two decks. visa vi I would take Knightfall into a tourney where I didn’t expect to play more than a game against jund by the law of averages, since I think the deck has an easier game against all the rest. Hope that made any sence

  28. @montana there were 14 people play vampires in that 5k. there were over 300 people in the tournament. not exactly the most played deck.

  29. @Steve Agreed. Definietly a weakness to exploit in the deck. I never cast harrow when I sense the flashfreeze…. It’s usually easy enough to intuit. I’ve never been caught there luckily. & i think I mentioned Pulse. Keep in mind you also have flashfreeze/negate for the pulse. Most Pulses will usually go after your Walkers Garruk/Ajani/Sorin . In all my testing Pulse got me twice. Once I still managed to win and the other I lost the game but won the match.

    But what do both Trace and Harrow do? Trace protects your Ruptured Spire from seas and ruinblasters and harrow can give you 2 lands for the land they tried to blow.

  30. Just went 2-2 on the latest daily with your last list. Not having played a single game with it before signing up, I’m pretty sure I punted somewhere along the way.

    What was especially hard for me was knowing how to pace the use of removal, if it is important to save life so you have time to get to your gamebreaking spells or if you should save it for the important guys. I know the answer is in the middle, but it sure is hard to see.

    I loved the deck, although my result was by no means good. I have to say that my matchups were 1 Naya, 2 monoB vampires and 1 BR vampires.

    Naya seems as good a matchup as you said the midrange green decks were.
    Vampires seems like a very tough one, not unwinnable (I did win a round against it), but tough. I lucked out pretty hard on the third game of my win against the black menace.
    And the BR decks seems tailor made to beat this, it is a very hard matchup.

    You sir, have a way of warping metagames whenever you put out an article. I love this list, but I’d be weary of playing it again on MTGO anytime this week. Lots of people seem to be gunning for you (your deck, that is). I will be practicing it for paper tournaments, tough.

    And Sorin is awesome, just awesome. I love it almost as much as Cruel, sometimes more.

  31. It is really irritating when people post their decklists in the comments section. Please erase them or something.

  32. @ Sheik: You overcome Luminarch Ascension with Malakir Bloodwitch. It’s explained in the article.

  33. and if it is countered, or if u dont draw it, dont u think that u need more than one card for backup plan?

  34. @ Sheik: you bounce the ascension before it gets active with Into the Roil or buy yourself some time with Lightning Bolt/Earthquake/Nighthawk/Burst Lightning. This deck has plenty of answers to Luminarch Ascension.

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