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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)

 

[deck]

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!

LSV

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