Today, I’m going to analyze the Top 8 decks and Top 16 metagame from the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia. You can find all the lists from the event here.
As you’ll see shortly, the Top 8 wasn’t exactly the bastion of creativity everyone has been bandying about since the rotation happened. I’ll be looking at these decks critically and as a result may disagree with my conclusions and arguments, this is fine and I certainly wouldn’t expect any less. That said, I’ll borrow this section from PVDDR when he wrote his analysis of the Dallas 5k, made all the more prophetic by the comments he did get.
PVDDR once upon a time wrote:
“Whenever someone writes one of these articles, in which they say they don’t like something, there is the automatic response of “how dare you say that about my friend’s deck! He put months of playtesting into this, and you didn’t play a single game with it, how arrogant of you to think you know better than him!” That’s true, I have not playtested all these decks, and I might be wrong, but if you want to say I’m wrong, please have a better argument than “I playtested and you didn’t.”
Now that we have the formalities out of the way, let’s begin.
The Top 16 had the following breakdown of deck archetypes:
6 Jund Aggro (Five in Top 8, including winner)
3 Vampires (One in Top 8 )
3 Naya Lotus Angel / Naya Zoo (Zero in Top 8 )
1 Sligh (One in Top 8 )
1 Boros (One in Top 8 )
1 Mono White Control (Zero in Top 8 )
1 Luminarch Planeswalker Control (Zero in Top 8 )
Even going down through the Top 16, there are only seven archetypes represented and Jund was the overwhelming majority of high finishers. Having six copies of Jund in the Top 16 was a strong sign, but having five of those in the Top 8, including the winner? Well that’s the sign of a benchmark deck for this format if I ever saw one. Jund may or may not be the best deck in the format, but it certainly is powerful and put up some significant numbers to back itself up. After that we have the most obvious deck from Zendikar, Vampires.
Most people reacted rather well to the early versions being posted and the idea that this sort of theme deck could be successful if pushed enough. No one was quite sure how well the deck would perform in practice, but the results here indicate that they at least put up a fight. After that, Red was a significant performer making it to the semis and finals of the tournament with a Sligh and Boros deck; respectively. Naya also put up numbers, but all copies failed to make it to the single-elim rounds and it has to be wondered if Jund is just a better deck due to all the two-for-one’s the deck can provide.
What might be most surprising about the Top 8 is that no control decks made it in. In fact, not even a single deck running Blue even made it out of the swiss. Even in the control decks that were in the Top 16, only one ran any Blue and it was almost purely for Jace Beleren and Negate. Obviously control wasn’t quite prepared for such a wide open field, nor entirely aware of the type of threats that would be most common or powerful against it. This was to be somewhat expected for the first major tournament post-rotation in an unknown metagame, but still shocking to see traditional control decks failing so spectacularly.
Now, let’s take a closer look
Jund Aggro by Jack Wang, 1st place
Now I could list every Jund deck, but that seems like a waste of space. Pretty much every single person agreed with the basic construction of the deck and what cards were worth running in the full 75 and merely quibbled on the precise numbers. The one major difference that’s notable is the use of Goblin Ruinblaster in the sideboard over Great Sable Stag. Not only does it provide a way to actually beat control decks on tempo, but you can cut them off on splash colors very easily. However in the mirror Goblin Ruinblaster really shines, absolutely devastating many Jund hands and at worst buying time before the big guns like Bituminous Blast, Garruk Wildspeaker and Broodmate Dragon get online.
I’m surprised so few people picked up on his power in the Jund deck, but without knowing exactly how many Jund decks would be floating around it was a bit of a gamble. It turned out that a large chunk of the field was Jund, so the non-basics to destroy were plentiful and anyone who has played Jund can tell you how mana-dependent the deck is. Many Jund hands are forced to rely on only a single land of certain colors to power out their spells with, remove that pillar and they’ll often lose on the spot.
Past that tech, the board is pretty standard for a Jund deck. Wang eschews Anathemancer which was fine call since very few decks are running enough non-basics for the ‘Mancer to be great. I do believe Duress was a poor choice though; Jund has few ways to take advantage of additional discard resource-wise and doesn’t want to spend time casting Duress on the early turns. Unless you played a Swamp and Duressed on turn one, often you wouldn’t bother casting it until turn five or six. The other problem with Duress is that there just aren’t very many relevant spells in the format that are worth spending one of your own cards to get rid of. Jund is a deck that loves getting two-for-one against the field with its card choices. By running Duress you are moving away from that core philosophy and really just wasting resources unless you hit a Cruel Ultimatum with it.
I like the maindeck numbers and all the card choices there with the exception of Resounding Thunder. Thunder was never that impressive, even in Alara Block, so seeing it again now doesn’t fill me with confidence. I’d much rather get the third Garruk Wildspeaker or fourth Maelstrom Pulse in there before adding such a fair burn spell. The why behind it being in the deck is that it deals three damage, the key number against a number of threats (Thrinax, Vampire Nighthawk, Planeswalkers) and going along with the late-game ability for the deck to burn an opponent out. Yeah, I’d rather play Burst Lightning before Thunder and really I’d rather just run more Pulses or even get the [card]Jund Charm[/card] in the maindeck.
If you need a Jund build to get started with, make those couple of corrections and this is a fine one to use as your litmus test against everything else.
Boros Bushwacker by Christian Calcano, 2nd place
As my friend Leo told me the other day, “The best deck to play in an unknown metagame is the fastest linear aggro deck possible.” When I showed up to playtest a few days ago with a less refined version of this deck, my partners were skeptical to say the least. They changed their tunes when the deck was killing them on turn four and five through blockers and Day of Judgment. At the moment this is the fastest deck in the format, bar none.
This deck was a great choice for an unsuspecting field with many players who probably didn’t even remember what Goblin Bushwacker or Kor Skyfisher even did. Slower Jund and controlling decks would simply be manhandled by this deck unless they kept hands specifically with the intent of hosing the early threats the deck presents. It also is so quick that any deck that stumbles on mana is a bye for it.
I actually really like this deck, much moreso than the Sligh deck in the same Top 8 and I think it plays well to its strengths in the current incarnation. There are a few things I have to question though. The lack of a fourth Ranger of Eos in the maindeck is mindboggling to me; sure, Ranger is the highest creature on the curve, but it also happens to be the third best creature in the deck and the only reason this deck beats sweepers. I can’t remember any games where I went, “Man I drew this Ranger of Eos and I wish it were anything else.” Maybe if I already had two Ranger in hand and needed the fourth land and I drew a third Ranger I’d be a bit ticked off, but otherwise the card is too absurd to cut back on. Keeping one in the board is basically a concession to not having space, which shouldn’t be an issue for this deck.
My other problem with the maindeck is Plated Geopede, which I actually have tried in the past. A two-drop in this deck really needs to be able to attack or otherwise have an effect* to be usable. Hellspark Elemental comes down and swings for three and then coming back for three later. Plated Geopede comes down and can swing for five the following turn, but there’s no guarantee that it will and definitely none that it won’t be removed with the landfall trigger on the stack. If you do reach a point where you’ve been reduced to topdecking, Geopede is awful, lacking haste or any consistent way to become bigger than a 1/1. Plated Geopede certainly increases the goldfish speed of the deck since it can deal more damage than Hellspark or Cedron Yearling in a short period of time, but it sucks worse against removal and is a worse topdeck. Since the deck already kills on turns four or five consistently, I don’t think the slight bonus to speed is worth giving up resiliency.
*Kor Skyfisher is definitely a cool addition to the deck. Not only does it power up the Landfall dorks, but being able to reuse Teetering Peaks on a guy with Flying or Trample is a huge boost. It may look like a big loss of tempo, but considering the flat line of the curve, it really fits in quite nicely.
Mana-wise, the deck definitely functions at twenty-three land and with four Peaks. Still, I’m still amazed that in a deck with only twelve spells (all of which cost one) that Ancient Ziggurat is once again overlooked.
The sideboard is ok and has some defendable card choices, although I think having some additional help against Baneslayer Angel wouldn’t be out of line. Even if it ends up being something poor like Pacifism, just some additional way to deal with a card that single-handedly demolishes the deck and can be played on turn four by some decks. The one eyesore is Baneslayer Angel, which you realistically won’t be able to cast until turn infinity. It doesn’t even fit the goal of the deck and probably isn’t going to trump any late-game threats opponents can muster up.
Magma Spray could also become something else, possibly Goblin Ruinblaster to extend the window you have to win the game before the giant threats come online. It isn’t that Magma Spray is a bad card, it’s that you already have the capability to run sixteen removal spells and four more pseudo-removal spells in Harm’s Way. At some point there are far too many removal spells to actual threats in the deck and it’s already straddling the line, boarding in more would definitely push it over.
I like the Boros deck quite a bit, but recommend caution in the future now that the deck is a known quantity. The next couple of weeks will be a great time for the deck and the speed will keep it as a deck to beat. Once people prepare though, more cheap removal and Pyroclasm effects will become rampant and the deck will obviously need to begin adapting.
Sligh by Zach Becker, 3rd place
At this point in time, I think the above Boros build is superior to the Mono Red build. The red deck lacks a reasonable way of dealing with Baneslayer Angel, being forced to fall back on Chandra Nalaar or stealing it for a turn with Act of Treason / Mark of Mutiny and winning in one swing. The curve is also far more important for the Sligh deck, since ramping into your varying creature burn spells is of the utmost important. With Boros you don’t really care if you get stuck on two or three land for a couple of turns. Sligh gets stuck on a couple lands and suddenly Earthquake and Plated Geopede are practically useless, while Elemental Appeal sits in hand and Hell’s Thunder rots in the graveyard.
Although Sligh has decreased vulnerability to sorcery speed removal, at this point all that means is Pyroclasm and Day of Judgment don’t hurt you. One small problem with that logic though, even sweeper-wise, Jund Charm is the gold standard in Jund sideboards. Everybody else mostly relied on trading with their removal anyway, so the traditional advantage these cards give is somewhat negated. It also produces an issue where cards like Sprouting Thrinax and Vampire Hexmage are useful walls against Ball Lightning and Elemental Appeal.
Hell’s Thunder was an interesting inclusion, but just doesn’t give the same oomph as the other two for the mana cost. In a format with Path to Exile and Celestial Purge as top removal spells for decks running White; using Thunder becomes risky at best. Really if Jund is the deck to beat, this deck takes a huge hit because it has to invest all of it’s mana every turn into cards that are destined to die to cheaper removal spells or Bituminous Blast. Blightning also hurts this deck far more than the Boros build since it has no way to regain card advantage after the game begins. Unearth can buy a little value back, but this deck really can’t afford to get hit by a Mind Rot.
I’ve already given my thoughts on Resounding Thunder in Jund and it hasn’t changed for this deck. Obsidian Fireheart also looks very out of a place as a miser one-of, especially when Chandra Nalaar is great in this format and apparently the pilot couldn’t find room in the sideboard for another one. In fact Chandra Nalaar could serve as an important distinguishing point for Sligh in the future, one relying on an equal amount of high powered four and five mana threats along with the early beats. Going with the all-in speed route just seems worse due to the lack of good one-drops Red has after Goblin Guide.
As for the sideboard, the whole thing is a complete mess, there’s no doubt about that. Goblin Ruinblaster is self-explanatory and makes sense against control and Jund, although this deck is probably the least likely to take advantage of the tempo advantage. So few of this deck’s creatures stay alive for longer than a turn that you rarely get a lot of extra damage in from the trade, he’s here almost entirely to try and color-screw players. Unstable Footing is worthless unless Turbo Fog suddenly became the most popular deck in the field. Five mana for five damage is garbage in a deck all about getting more damage than mana invested for every spell.
Chandra Nalaar is one of the few good answers Red has to Baneslayer Angel and larger creatures in general, as well as being very obnoxious to Cruel Ultimatum decks. I definitely think she has earned her slots and I would recommend getting the full set into the deck. The split on Act of Treason and Mark of Mutiny makes absolutely no sense. Either you play Act as a ‘safe’ blocker remover and damage source anytime you think you can get value from it or you go with the all-in route of Mark of Mutiny for one extra damage. Although I prefer Act of Treason, you should definitely pick whichever one you feel adds more to the deck and run with that instead of a silly 2-2 split with no strategic value.
Personally I think Sligh is just worse than Boros Bushwhacker at this point in time, but Sligh is still a fine test case for decks. The added burn helps test a different extreme than Boros, but ultimately the extra color takes away very little from consistency and adds to overall speed (Not just goldfish speed) and resilience.
Vampires by Ted Renner, 7th place
Now this is an interesting Vampires list. Renner cut one of the cards which I consider part of the core of the deck, Vampire Lacerator. Normally I’d chastise this decision, as who could argue with the power of a 2/2 for a single Black mana? Even if it only got in for a swing or two and blocked a random dork, that seems good enough for your average aggro deck. When you look at the Top Eight of the 5k though, you realize that Lacerator would’ve been terrible against every other deck in that Top Eight. Even extending this to the Top 16, there are only a total of two decks where you would be happy to see Lacerator early and a few others where you feel apathetic toward it.
Now I still believe Lacerator deserves a slot in most Vampires builds, especially if / when control decks begin to pop back up in the format. However if future fields are full of Jund, Red and other very aggressive decks, then the usefulness of Lacerator drops dramatically. Interestingly enough, the deck also runs a full compliment of Tendrils of Corruption along with maindeck Mind Sludge, making it much stronger against slower creature-based strategies than the average Vampires build. The sideboard also looks like it offered the most usable cards in a variety of matches rather than having too many for two or three. The single Vampire Hexmage is a bit silly looking since there are very few places where it would be correct to board out a card to get him in and Duress is weak, but the rest is solid.
Of course going along with all this praise, there has to be some criticism. Eldrazi Monument as a 1-of still strikes me as some odd throwback to when we ran a singleton Loxodon Warhammer in decks. The problem is that Monument is only good when your in a position to win the game immediately and so drawing it would accomplish that. If you have one or two guys out and play the Monument and for whatever reason the opponent doesn’t die, you’ve just thrown away your remaining board position and the Monument itself will bite the dust soon after. The Monument is also a dead card in your hand, a virtual mulligan, where as Warhammer could actually be played early if need be. Warhammer also had the advantage of turning a single creature into a must-kill threat while Monument merely provides a +1/+1 along with its evasion boost. I get the reasoning behind Monument, but I still think it happens to be a terrible idea.
A lot of concessions have been made toward early game pressure with this build, taking out five of the creatures that consisted of your first two turn drops. If you actually want to use Gatekeeper’s ability, this means you only have seven creatures to play on turn two. Throw in the fact that Bloodghast couldn’t step in front of Goblin Guide or Putrid Leech even it wanted to; so you might be looking at a bit more early damage than you would take with other builds. Obviously the Tendrils lifegain can help offset this, but your smaller number of early drops can make an impact on how aggressive opponents are.
The only other card choice I take issue with is the omission of Quest for the Gravelord. A lot of this deck is geared more toward playing a slightly slower and more controlling game, but it lacks one of the best mid-game cards the deck can run. Even if there’s no room to maindeck Quest, I have to believe that Quest offers more than Duress against the decks in the Top 16 and control in general. For those who haven’t tried the card, the best I can compare it to is Greater Gargadon. An amazing threat that takes time to come online, but is well worth the minimal mana investment you put into it.
Vampires are the Kithkin of the format. An annoying tribal aggro deck that isn’t the quickest thing around, but can get into knockdown drag-out fights with decks with its card advantage options and efficient creatures. Even if the format evolves, I doubt it’ll reach a point where Vampires is invalidated in its current form.
This article is already quite lengthy, so I’ll stop here. If people are interested I can cover the other Top 16 decks, but I’m not sure how interesting ‘Both control decks look completely miserable’ will be to read. With luck the LCQ results will show some quick development past phase 1 (The, everybody play Jund phase) of this format.
For what it’s worth, the only control decks I’ve been seriously trying out are the Grixis Pyromancer’s Ascension deck the Japanese made and Esper Control. The Pyromancer’s Ascension deck is legitimate to a surprising extent, although I’m not sure if the Jund or Boros match is good enough to justify. Meanwhile for Esper control, this is the list I’ve been trying with some success.
Pretty standard idea; stall for a while behind Day of Judgment, Vedalken Outlander and other removal. Play Baneslayer Angel and ride it to victory if possible, if not, play Identity Crisis or Sphinx of the Steel Wind as an ultimate trump. I have enough card draw to find counters to not auto-roll in a Cruel Ultimatum match and I think the deck can handle a Red rush rather well.
Think about Vedalken Outlander seriously for a second even if you don’t want to maindeck him in your control builds. Obviously he’s insane against the Sligh and Boros decks, but even against Jund he holds up well. Blocks Thrinax, Bloodbraid Elf and is immune to all non-Maelstrom Pulse removal. It isn’t some perfect answer and Wall of Denial may end up better in the maindeck. However the ability to lay Outlander on turn two and keep counter mana open on turn three and beyond is a big deal.
Hindering Light is also completely sweet. It stops Blightning at no card loss and can counter the huge trumps in other matches like Mind Sludge, Identity Crisis and Cruel Ultimatum. Meanwhile Sphinx of the Steel Wind is the ultimate end boss for the deck, Red decks and Jund have absolutely no way to destroy it and even Vampires needs a Tendrils for six to do anything to the beast. If it gets to start attacking though, woo boy, the game is pretty much over since it can also sit back and play defense.
Good luck to those going to Austin this week and I’ll see you next week!
Email me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom