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Posts tagged “Grand Prix

Standards and Practices: Mo’ Colors Mo’ Problems

It seems the undead horde is relentless, evidenced as much by tournament results as by the increasing number of zombie movies directed by George Romero. (Seven “of the Dead” movies? Really, George? Seven?) For two consecutive weeks, American Grand Prix have been won by aggressive Rakdos decks featuring zombies, dragons, and devils that ride from the fiery pits of hell.

"Hi, mom!"

“Hi, mom!”

In times like these, one might think that streamlining their midrange and control decks, so as to be able to bear the brunt of the undead onslaught, is the correct course of action. “Surely,” quip the commentators, “Any sane man wouldn’t be caught dead playing more than eight shock lands when aggro decks dominate the format.” This is true; any sane man wouldn’t.

But I’m interested in decks built by the metaphorically insane.

Conley Woods

Brewmaster extraordinaire and Andre the Giant understudy Conley Woods recently piloted a four-color deck to the top eight of Grand Prix San Antonio, packing ten shock lands in his seventy-five.  The deck featured format staples like Restoration Angel and Thragtusk alongside aggro-hindering stalwarts like Loxodon Smiter and Huntmaster of the Fells to help brunt the initial rush of damage from an aggressive opponent, with Unburial Rites and Armada Wurm to pressure control decks after they’ve handed down their Supreme Verdict.

In Conley’s case, the life loss from shock lands is mitigated by the life gain from Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk, as well as the fact that Loxodon Smiter and Restoration Angel present a sizable blocker against Rakdos and Selesnya decks predominantly featuring creatures with three or less power. The recent showing of midrange Naya decks as well as the Jund decks that appeared early in the format are a testament to those creatures’ strengths against the hyper-aggressive decks that have come to dominate the format in recent weeks.

However, adding a fourth color to an already solid deck helped Conley shore up the Naya deck’s main weakness: control. Bant control has become a driving force in the past few weeks, being piloted to money finishes by the likes of MTGO superstar Reid Duke and former Player of the Year Owen Turtenwald. The deck is very well-positioned against any and all midrange strategies, be they Naya, Junk, or Jund. Supreme Verdict is often a 2- or 3-for-1 against midrange decks, so Unburial Rites basically draws you a creature in the late game, allowing you to keep up on card advantage against the control player.

Lewis Laskin

While not placing in any large tournaments recently, Lewis Laskin’s “Not Black Midrange” deck has received a bit of buzz and seems very well-positioned against the current crop of aggressive decks. For those of you who haven’t seen it already, here is his masterpiece:

Not Black Midrange
Lands (26)
2x Clifftop Retreat
1x Desolate Lighthouse
2x Hallowed Fountain
4x Hinterland Harbor
1x Kessig Wolf Run
4x Rootbound Crag
4x Steam Vents
4x Sulfur Falls
4x Temple Garden
Instants (7)
2x Searing Spear
3x Sphinx’s Revelation
2x Syncopate
Sideboard (15)
1x Aerial Predation
1x Augur of Bolas
1x Blasphemous Act
1x Counterflux
3x Dissipate
1x Ray of Revelation
2x Rest in Peace
2x Rolling Temblor
1x Silklash Spider
1x Supreme Verdict
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Sorceries (10)
2x Bonfire of the Damned
4x Farseek
4x Pillar of Flame
Planeswalkers (4)
3x Jace, Architect of Thought
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Creatures (10)
4x Huntmaster of the Fells
2x Snapcaster Mage
4x Thragtusk
Enchantments (3)
3x Detention Sphere

Yet again we see ten shock lands shored up by the life gain from Huntmaster of the Fells and Thragtusk (a common trend with these four-color decks). If we look at this list as Bant control attempting to strengthen its aggressive matchup, the red splash helps with both the aforementioned life gain creatures as well as packing a full set of Pillar of Flame and two Searing Spears to blast any and all Gravecrawlers, Geralf’s Messengers, and Hellriders that might be getting too close for comfort.

However, we can also look at it as a Naya midrange deck trying to shore up its weakness to the over-the-top Bant control decks that win through repeated board sweepers and Sphinx’s Revelations. Jace is great at threatening a Bant player trying to win the long game, especially now that those decks have been trimming numbers on Detention Spheres and counter magic. Being able to steal the Elixir of Immortality from their deck can stop their grinding potential, and Rest in Peace out of the sideboard completely hoses that avenue of victory. Tamiyo’s emblem plus burn spells can also quickly end the game, though it does require you to play around Dissipate and Rest in Peace.

I will admit that the mana is stretched to the point of breaking, but any reasonable draw will keep you abreast of the format’s top strategies. I’m not the biggest fan of Syncopate right now, but Snapcaster Mage demands at least a few permission spells in order to be as Cryptic Command-y as he can be. Augur out of the sideboard seems cute but negotiable, and I wonder if the life gain on Aerial Predation makes it better than Crushing Vines, which has the added benefit of taking out errant Runechanter’s Pikes.

Ali Aintrazi

This article would not be complete without discussing the mad scientist himself. Ali Aintrazi is quickly becoming the spiritual successor to Conley Woods, known for such off-the-wall decks as Turboland and Blue-Black Heartless Summoning, as well as the Custom Cube he and Justin Parnell created. However, his most recent creation is probably his craziest, recently piloted to a 15th place finish at Grand Prix Charleston:

3 Doors Down
Lands (27)
1x Blood Crypt
3x Cavern of Souls
1x Dragonskull Summit
4x Glacial Fortress
2x Hallowed Fountain
1x Hinterland Harbor
2x Isolated Chapel
1x Kessig Wolf Run
4x Overgrown Tomb
1x Steam Vents
2x Sunpetal Grove
4x Temple Garden
1x Vault of the Archangel
Sorceries (14)
4x Farseek
3x Lingering Souls
2x Rakdos’s Return
2x Ranger’s Path
3x Supreme Verdict
Sideboard (15)
1x Abrupt Decay
1x Cavern of Souls
4x Centaur Healer
2x Duress
2x Rest in Peace
3x Slaughter Games
2x Tragic Slip
Planeswalkers (4)
1x Garruk, Primal Hunter
1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
1x Vraska the Unseen
Creatures (6)
1x Angel of Serenity
1x Griselbrand
4x Thragtusk
Instants (5)
2x Abrupt Decay
3x Sphinx’s Revelation
Artifacts (3)
2x Chromatic Lantern
1x Door to Nothingness
Enchantment (1)
1x Oblivion Ring

After further testing, Ali posted the updated list on his recent article on StarCityGames.com, including an explanation for his deck choice and the changes he made after Charleston. I’ve been testing the updated list for the past week and plan on playing it in Baltimore this weekend:

3 Doors Down v2.0
Lands (26)
1x Alchemist’s Refuge
1x Blood Crypt
3x Cavern of Souls
1x Dragonskull Summit
3x Glacial Fortress
2x Hallowed Fountain
1x Hinterland Harbor
2x Isolated Chapel
1x Kessig Wolf Run
4x Overgrown Tomb
1x Steam Vents
2x Sunpetal Grove
4x Temple Garden
Sorceries (14)
4x Farseek
3x Lingering Souls
2x Rakdos’s Return
1x Ranger’s Path
4x Supreme Verdict
Sideboard (15)
1x Abrupt Decay
1x Cavern of Souls
1x Curse of Death’s Hold
1x Door to Nothingness
3x Duress
1x Rakdos’s Return
2x Rest in Peace
2x Slaughter Games
2x Tragic Slip
1x Ultimate Price
Planeswalkers (3)
1x Garruk, Primal Hunter
1x Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
1x Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
Creatures (6)
1x Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
1x Griselbrand
4x Thragtusk
Instants (6)
2x Abrupt Decay
3x Sphinx’s Revelation
1x Ultimate Price
Artifacts (3)
3x Chromatic Lantern
Enchantments (2)
1x Curse of Death’s Hold
1x Detention Sphere

That’s a grand total of twelve shock lands with nary a Huntmaster in sight. To supplement the requisite Thragtusk-and-Sphinx’s Revelation pony show that is the mainstay of every Bant control deck, Ali dipped into the Block-banned Lingering Souls to help prevent some early beats as well as provide a threat against the slower control decks. “So,” you may ask, “What’s the point of adding two additional colors to a deck that already has a proven track record of success? What do you gain?”

Everything.

Playing five colors means you can play every card in the format, so long as you can hit all your colors. The benefits of this are twofold; the first and most obvious benefit is that you can adjust your deck with any number of cards to prey on the suspected meta of the next big tournament. Aggressive decks expected? You have access to Supreme Verdict, Pillar of Flame, Sphinx’s Revelation, Thragtusk, Huntmaster of the Fells, Centaur Healer, and Curse of Death’s Hold in the same deck.  So long as you can insure being able to cast these spells in a timely fashion, five color control lets you play the most powerful answers and threats in any given format.

The second benefit is more subtle but equally important; five-color means your opponent has less information about what cards are in your deck. When you play Rakdos aggro or Bant control, there is a finite number of cards that are useful to either strategy, so your opponent knows what to play around. When you play five colors, the only cards your opponents can be sure are in your deck are Farseek and Chromatic Lantern. Everything else is basically good stuff dictated by what colors of mana your lands produce.

Going into this weekend, I can’t lie that I have some reservations about playing greed.dec. However, this is the type of deck I love to play. I expect there to be a rise in decks designed to beat Rakdos aggro, most of which will be midrange strategies upon which this deck preys. This is what Chapin calls level two; playing a deck that beats the deck which beats the deck to beat. I can only hope I’ll be able to show my opponents the Door.


Standards and Practices: Tales from Baltimore

Your mana base is terrible.

Those were the words I kept repeating to my friend Grant as he drove the two of us down to Baltimore for the Grand Prix this past weekend. The weather on Friday was wet and grey and we had spent no small amount of time on our trip discussing (read: bitching) about our respective ex-girlfriends in order to direct the conversation away from my continued discussion (read: criticism) of Grant’s chosen deck for the tournament the following day.

Nineteen forests, two Kessig Wolf Runs, and two mountains, and you want to play Inferno Titan?

I had long since settled on Black-Blue Zombies, after continued testing with Diregraf Captain and Phantasmal Image showed those two cards to be significantly better than anything red had to offer. In addition, Haunted Humans, zombies’ worst match-up, had all but disappeared from the tournament scene, pushed out of the way by the old pillar of the format, Wolf Run Ramp. It was for that same reason that my friend Ted, who had been piloting humans for the past couple of months, and our friend Mark had decided Blue-Black Control was the proper meta-game choice for Baltimore.

Dungrove Elder does not belong in a Birthing Pod deck.

I tried to make Grant see reason. Wasn’t Blade Splicer a better three-drop for Pod strategies? Why not take advantage of Sun Titan and Elesh Norn, cards which were powerful and dealt with a number of strategies we were sure to encounter at the Grand Prix? No matter what I said, Grant assured me that Dungrove Elder was insane and the perfect three-drop for his red-green Birthing Pod deck.

He was absolutely right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Left 5-4 Dead

Before detailing my tumultuous ride to a 5-4 finish on day one, here is the list I registered for the Grand Prix:

Black-Blue Zombies

Creatures (28)
1x Cemetery Reaper
4x Diregraf Captain
4x Diregraf Ghoul
3x Fume Spitter
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
4x Phantasmal Image
4x Skirsdag High Priest
Lands (21)
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacomb
13x Swamp
Sideboard (15)
2x Corrosive Gale
3x Geth’s Verdict
3x Nihil Spellbomb
4x Phyrexian Crusader
3x Ratchet Bomb
Instants (8)
2x Doom Blade
2x Go for the Throat
4x Tragic Slip
Artifacts (3)
3x Mortarpod

I had decided to switch from Geth’s Verdict to target removal, having expected a field full of zombies, spirit tokens, Snapcaster Mages and Huntmasters of the Fells. I had also allotted four sideboard slots to Phyrexian Crusader, which was supposed to be the trump in the Haunted Humans match-up. Both of these decisions would come back to haunt me throughout the tournament.

Round 2 – U/W Delver

After utilizing my first-round bye to scout the field, throughout which I saw the Haunted Humans and Frites decks I was more than happy to have skipped, I found myself seated across from the bogeyman of the format. I had tested numerous games against the spirit version of Delver and found the match-up to be solidly in my favor, even with Geth’s Verdict instead of spot removal. Skirsdag High Priest is insane in the match-up, and their mass of small creatures makes it very easy to score a 5/5 demon by turn three.

However, a game-one mulligan to five started me off on the wrong foot, and things looked even worse when I saw a turn-two Invisible Stalker from my opponent, making the Doom Blade in my hand look very pathetic indeed. I was quickly smashed by a turn-four Angelic Destiny followed by a turn-five Destiny just for the rub-ins.

Lacking a sideboard for Delver Classic™, I simply sided into Geth’s Verdicts and Corrosive Gales and hoped for the best. However, I mulliganed down to six in game two with another sketchy hand, while my opponent managed to blind flip a turn one Delver and follow it up with a turn-three Timely Reinforcements, quickly putting me out of the game.

1 – 1

Round 3 – Hippo Blade

This was not a deck for which I had prepared, but if you were to ask me my thoughts after this match, I would say the favor is definitely in the zombies’ camp. While their Swords and Etched Champions are a nuisance and they do pack Elesh Norns and Day of Judgments, they have no way to interact with a quick start and their clock is slow enough that a good zombie player will be able to stabilize past the first wrath.

Game one I kept a slow hand with three lords and a removal spell, and almost lost to an Inkmoth Nexus repeatedly smacking me with a Sword of Feast and Famine. Eventually, I stuck a Mortarpod onto a Diregraf Captain and my opponent failed to realize the deathtouch would kill his Glint Hawk Idol, and I quickly took the game back after dropping two successive lords and a Gravecrawler.

I forget what I sideboarded for game two, but it didn’t matter. My curve of Diregraf Ghoul into double Gravecrawler into Diregraf Captain was too much for my opponent. Even with the Day of Judgment, swinging for nine power on turn three with double Messengers in hand was too much for him to possibly stabilize.

2 – 1

Round 4 – Wolf Run Black

While Wolf Run Black has a better game one against zombies than traditional Wolf Run, their lack of Huntmaster of the Fells makes it almost impossible to stabilize from a quick assault backed up by Geralf’s Messenger.

Game one I had a very quick start with multiple one-drops followed by a lord, finally getting Zenithed away with my opponent dropping to eight life. However, his Grave Titan was quickly imaged, and then both it and its controller were quickly dispatched.

Game two he missed a ramp spell on turn two, allowing for my zombies to swing in for an extra turn before being Zenithed away once more. Again, he dropped a titan, this time one of the primeval variety, and again I imaged his titan, killed it, and then killed him.

3 – 1

Round 5 – Heartless Lich

This will go down as one of my all-time favorite matches ever, due in no small part to how friendly my opponent was throughout the whole thing. Even after playing three games of this match-up, I’m still not sure which deck is favored to win.

Game one he got off an early Heartless Summoning while I came out of the gates quickly with some Diregraf Ghouls, Gravecrawlers, and a Skirsdag High Priest, all of which were killed by a Zenith before I was able to make a demon. Irony of ironies, he proceeds to drop a Havengul Lich, steal my Skirsdag High Priest, and use the synergy between Perilous Myr, Lich, and Summoning to pump out 4/4 demons at an alarming rate.

Game two he failed to hit black mana and I smashed him in the face with an endless supply of undead.

Game three was the reason I enjoyed this match so much. Once again, my deck did what it was good at and beat my opponent down to a low life total. It was at that point that he dropped the ultimate stop-sign: Platinum Emperion. I had a Cemetery Reaper online at this point and he had multiple Liches and other creatures in the graveyard, but I had no way to kill the Emperion in hand. What followed was a back-and-forth of me making a zombie and him passing the turn, except for one turn in which he used Treasure Mage to search up Mindslaver, hoping to use my own hand against me. Unfortunately, my hand was a bunch of creatures, so he was forced to simply tap my lands and make me pass the turn. Eventually, I found the Tragic Slip needed to kill the Emperion, and swung through with a massive horde of 3/3 zombies for the win.

4 – 1

Round 6 – Esper Control (piloted by Shaheen Soorani)

I keep making the joke that, at every tournament I attend, I will play against some well-known player and beat them. It started with my first Grand Prix in DC, where I played the Naya Vengevine mirror against Jacob Van Lunen, and continued to my stint in Star City Games Baltimore, where I beat Lewis Laskin’s Caw-Blade deck with Black-Red Vampires. Now it was Shaheen Soorani’s turn to feel my wrath.

Only he didn’t.

Lack of testing against this deck definitely hurt me in the match-up, as I had him on Solar Flare for most of game one, which I won pretty quickly on the back of four Gravecrawlers and Shaheen missing one or two land drops. Having forgotten the Esper Control deck he’d written about earlier that week, I simply sided out my Skirsdag High Priests and sided in my Nihil Spellbombs, looking for a quick, zombie-driven game two.

Unfortunately for me, both games two and three were decided by the curve of Celestial Purge into Liliana into Day of Judgment, backed up by Lingering Souls that quickly beat me out of any chance of winning. There may have been a Gideon Jura in there as well, not like it mattered what with my Geralf’s Messengers exiled or countered and nary a Phyrexian Obliterator anywhere in my seventy-five.

Looking back, had I had Obliterator instead of Phyrexian Crusader, I would have been a lot more favored in this match-up. It also doesn’t help that I forgot to side in my Ratchet Bombs after seeing a mass of tokens in game two.

4 – 2

Round 7 – Grixis Control

The current iteration of Grixis Control is not optimally suited to deal with zombies. While they have the Curse of Death’s Hold to lock down the Gravecrawlers, they lack the Oblivion Rings and Celestial Purges to permanently deal with the Geralf’s Messengers, nor the Nephalia Drownyards that actually provide a reasonable clock once control has been established.

I had long since learned how to pilot zombies against any Blue-Black Control deck; put on early pressure with Gravecrawlers, Diregraf Ghouls, and possibly a Captain, then wait for them to tap out for a wrath before chaining Geralf’s Messengers to whittle away at their remaining life. The main difference between Grixis and straight Blue-Black is the lack of a Drownyard to threaten my inaction while waiting for them to tap out. My opponent’s only real threat in either game was a Grave Titan for which he would invariably have to tap out, after which I would copy it with Phantasmal Image and either kill it or race it.

There was an amusing misplay on my part during game two where he attacked into my titan and two zombies with his pair of 2/2 zombies, to which I blocked with my tokens and he followed up the attack with a Liliana of the Veil to make me sacrifice my titan, but I had multiple Geralf’s Messengers in my hand that allowed me to quickly recover from my misplay to take the match.

5 – 2

Round 8 – Black-Blue Zombies

Have you ever gotten that sinking feeling? That feeling that the day has been going too well, and that something bad is bound to happen?

Yeah, me neither.

In any case, I found myself not only paired against my friend Dean, but the mirror match as well, and I discovered rather quickly that he had been putting in way more testing than I had with this deck. In addition, whereas I had been facing off against different decks all day, Dean told me he had played the mirror match four times over the course of the tournament.

All of this led to a terribly disappointing 0 – 2 defeat of yours truly, courtesy of some Skirsdag High Priests and Phyrexian Obliterators that made my Doom Blades look positively laughable. Dean had cut down on the priests, finding them to be more cute than effective, and upped the land count to twenty-two, both things which I have since adopted in my list. Overall, his list was able to go more over-the-top than my own, keeping me on the back foot for both games from which I was never able to recover.

5 – 3

Round 9 – Township Tokens

I played out the last round for fun, Dean having knocked me out of the running for Day Two. I was summarily crushed by a Township Tokens list that was pretty much cut-and-pasted from Martin Juza’s list from a Grand Prix late last year.

As my deck was tuned to face off against Delver, Blue-Black Control and Wolf Run, I lacked the proper sideboard options or knowledge of the match-up, which already seems to be quite an uphill battle for the zombie player. Any deck that is able to create a mass amount of chump blockers that are more or less immune to spot removal has a good match-up against my deck and when you add in things like Garruk Relentless and Elspeth Tirel there is simply no way for my deck to race effectively.

5 – 4

At the end of the day, all but two of the players from the Encounter, Ted and Dean, had missed out on day two. Dean plowed through both Mark and myself on his way to Day Two (and managed to be paired up against and beat Ted in the first round of Day Two), and Grant made me eat my words by posting a better-than-mine 6 – 3 record for Day One.

If I have learned anything walking away from this tournament, it is the importance of listening to your friends’ advice. My card choices were influenced by my over-confidence in knowing how to pilot my deck, without regard for the advice of my friends who, while having not piloted the deck themselves, were all very skilled players with a good grasp on Magic theory. It was also to my detriment that I did not contact Dean before the tournament, as I knew he was on Black-Blue Zombies and could have used his advice when it came to what cards to add or cut.

It is for this same reason that I was telling Grant what to put in or take out of his Birthing Pod deck, and I was equally wrong in this case. I hadn’t really thought about it at the time, but both Dungrove Elder and Birthing Pod are nightmare cards for the Blue-Black Control deck, which has virtually no reasonable way of interacting with said cards. Add to this that Grant’s deck could function like a Wolf Run deck at times, Dungrove Elder also acts as the perfect trump to the ramp strategies, while his Sword of War and Peace plan-B helped him to steal some wins from the slower decks at the tournament. However, he has admitted that he’s more interested in shifting to the Green-Red Aggro deck piloted by Jackie Lee into the top 8.

I was also a bit short-sighted when it came to reading the meta-game. I knew that Wolf Run Ramp and Blue-Black Control were going to be the top decks of the tournament after Wolf Run’s impressive showing at Worlds, and as such I chose a deck that was built to effectively combat those decks while still having a good Delver match-up. What I failed to realize was the way that the other decks in the format would adjust to the changing meta-game. Delver reverted back to the blade-style decks we saw before the Pro Tour, to which Geth’s Verdict is a much better card than spot removal and Skirsdag High Priest appears much, much worse. I also failed to recognize that Wolf Run Black would make an appearance, as it trumps the Wolf Run mirror with better titans.

Grand Prix Wrap-Up

In spite of this, I did better than I’ve ever done at a Grand Prix and walked away from the weekend feeling very confident about my deck and my skill as a Magic player (it didn’t hurt that I had also won half of a box of Dark Ascension in a side event on Day Two). I have since made changes to my zombies deck (which I purchased on Magic Online as soon as I’d returned from Baltimore). For the record, here is the list with which I have been destroying the two-man constructed queues:

Black-Blue Zombies v2.0

Creatures (27)
2x Cemetery Reaper
4x Diregraf Captain
4x Diregraf Ghoul
2x Fume Spitter
4x Geralf’s Messenger
4x Gravecrawler
4x Phantasmal Image
3x Phyrexian Obliterator
Lands (22)
4x Darkslick Shores
4x Drowned Catacomb
14x Swamp
Sideboard (15)
2x Corrosive Gale
3x Distress
3x Nihil Spellbomb
1x Phyrexian Metamorph
1x Phyrexian Obliterator
2x Ratchet Bomb
2x Skirsdag High Priest
1x Swamp
Instants (8)
4x Geth’s Verdict
4x Tragic Slip
Artifacts (3)
3x Mortarpod

I didn’t want to max out on Obliterators in the main because I wanted to keep the land count to twenty-two while having the option to side into the twenty-third land and the fourth Obliterator in matches where I become the control deck. I also wanted to keep at least two High Priests somewhere in the seventy-five because they are simply that good against the Delver decks. Geth’s Verdict got the nod over Doom Blade or Go for the Throat simply because I see a return to Geist of Saint Traft in the near future.

That’s all for this week! Next week I’ll be highlighting another one of my many, many Commander decks.

Until then, BRRAAAIIIINNNNNSSSSSS…

(P.S. Sorry for no pretty pictures this week. I’ll make it up to you all next week!)