Believe It or Not, a Defense of Jund

Posted in Top Decks on March 18, 2010

By Mike Flores

In my opinion, Jund is the least offensive boogeyman in the history of Magic: The Gathering.

Right now we hear a lot of hootin' and a hollerin' about Jund. It is played as a dramatic percentage of the metagame. The Pro Tour saw Jund versus Jund violence in the Finals. The most recent Grand Prix was again more than half Jund. Jund Jund Jund.

Terrible, right?

Personally, I don't think so.

Like I said already, it seems the least offensive of metagame boogeymen.


Compare Jund to previous, frustratingly overplayed "best decks" ...

    Fires of Yavimaya

Zvi Mowshowitz's Fires

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This is a deck that Mythic designer and Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz used to make an amazing Top 8 that featured numerous other Hall of Famers back in the year 2000.

Look familiar?

Fires was kind of the Jund of its day. There were even (eventually) versions that splashed black, like 2001 U.S. National Champion Trevor Blackwell's deck:

Trevor Blackwell's Fires

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I am not 100% sure why some critics / pundits dislike Jund, but I think they have some sense of it being draw-dependent (we'll get to that a little bit later). They don't like the idea of draw dependence in a game that involves, you know, picking up seven (or fewer) cards off of a sixty- (or sometimes more) card deck, and playing with those cards as an opening base of operations.

Fires was more draw-dependent—or perhaps more draw-exploitative—than Jund. Jund can draw two Blightnings (or a Blightning into a Bloodbraid Elf) and frustrate the opponent, certainly. Try comparing that to a first-turn Birds of Paradise (or Llanowar Elves) into Fires of Yavimaya, into Blastoderm, into Saproling Burst.

Blastoderm and Saproling Burst were cards specifically designed to not be lethal by themselves; but by getting haste, Blastoderm gained the ability to deal 20 and Saproling Burst gained the ability to, you know, be the second half of Fires, also known as The Fix. Played all together, The Fix was "In."

Today, Jund is considered hard to fight on a card-by-card basis. Though many players choose to run cards like Garruk Wildspeaker, and almost all Jund decks play four copies of Sprouting Thrinax, the quality of Jund cards is generally higher than the per-card quality of most other decks. Putrid Leech is well above the curve at two, Blightning and Bloodbraid Elf are about as good as you can get at three and four mana in Standard, and so on. Blightning—and the ability to chain into more Blightnings—helps to create a veritable Gatling gun of card advantage. Sprouting Thrinax (often the worst card in a Jund draw) can force interaction and also itself yield card advantage. Broodmate Dragon got the nickname "Double Dragon" for a reason. More card advantage.

So it is very difficult to deal with Jund card-for-card for the simple reason that each of its cards is worth lots of cards.

However, Jund is a deck that can be interacted with.

For example, Celestial Purge is superb against Jund, punishing Putrid Leech and undoing the potential of Sprouting Thrinax. A single well-placed Spreading Seas can topple the next several turns of cascading card advantage before the first spell is ever played. Subtly, Great Sable Stag is almost a game winner in and of itself; while it can be dealt with via a Lightning Bolt, a single unchecked Stag has shown itself to out-class every Bituminous Blast and Maelstrom Pulse in the opposing Jund deck's ... deck ... even when the World Championships is on the line.

The point?

Fires, by contrast, could not be so easily interacted with.

At the time that Fires of Yavimaya was on top, a first turn Birds of Paradise was nigh inexorable. Can you believe that? You could play Shock, but the threat you really had to deal with was Blastoderm ... Shock was not good enough. Zvi played with Assault // Battery—and was ahead of the curve when Invasion was new—but by the time Blackwell won the US National Championship, cards like that fell out of favor relative to Thornscape Battlemage and the great Flametongue Kavu. Many decks with Red access would choose to play Urza's Rage because it could help a deck compete with U/W Control... Urza's Rage was clearly too slow to deal with a first turn Birds of Paradise.

The problem being that if you didn't answer the Birds of Paradise, the Fires of Yavimaya would fall quickly after it, and at the point that that enchantment was in play, each Blastoderm would be 20-capable, and Saproling Burst would be an utter nightmare. U/W decks could keep pace, but most creature decks and progressive card advantage decks would fall hopelessly behind.

Were there decks that could beat Fires?

Of course!

Just like there are decks that consistently perform against Jund!

For example there were Rebels decks that could slow down tokens with Parallax Wave or absorb Blastoderms with Defiant Vanguards; the white-blue control decks were superb at taking blows to the skull but staying above water (at least until Flametongue Kavu was printed, ending the career of Blinding Angel), and mirror-esque variants like Brian Kibler's The Red Zone could out-Dragon an opposing deck's puny 4/4 and 5/5 threats.

But if you stumbled against Fires, you would often be at 15 on turn three, and on your way to the graveyard yourself soon after.

    Deadguy Red

Deadguy Red

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This version wasn't even "Deadguy" Red, not really. Dave Price and Jon Finkel would not be caught playing with Mogg Flunkies, nor would Chris Pikula.

Mogg Flunkies made this version of the Red Deck even more draw-dependent, and there were other versions played by people who were not Hall of Famers-to-be who played four Mogg Flunkies and no Orcs at all! Sometimes a player could not attack at all.

Other times they would open on a Jackal Pup and follow up with Flunkies.

You'd be on 18 at the beginning of the Red Deck's turn three, at which point it would produce a Ball Lightning and attack you for, say, 11. Even with resistance you'd usually be dead at this point because there was this card Fireblast in the format, and the Red Deck played four copies.

A lot of players will argue that Rishadan Port (as played in the aforementioned Fires of Yavimaya deck) is the most reviled single card in the history of Magic, but I think that the height of the Deadguy Red deck in Standard—in particular the Mogg Flunkies decks—marked the low point of skill vs. reward in tournament Magic, simply because of the speed of the cards the Red Deck could play crossed with the sometimes-inconsistency of a card like Mogg Flunkies.

Say your third land was a Wasteland (or you didn't have a third land, which could happen), and the opponent Shocked your Jackal Pup. Not only would you, yourself, take 2, but your Mogg Flunkies would be stuck at home. Basically a Time Walk in favor of the opponent; it was never clear that there was a good reason to subject yourself to this potential draw disadvantage. Some players look down on the skill level of Jund card choices for the same reason, every time they witness an aborted cascade attempt (but the two are not at all similar).


Jelger Wiegersma's Affinity

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If you have been playing for a few years, you probably don't need to be sold on the boogeyman-ness of this particular boogeyman, especially full-on Affinity, featuring not only the artifact lands (all eventually banned in Standard), and Arcbound Ravager (banned in Standard), but Disciple of the Vault, Skullclamp, and Æther Vial (all three banned in Extended).

If the deck weren't already the fastest, most effective, aggressive deck of all time, all of its creatures were also uncounterable instants that drew two cards apiece.

Still, the deck was beatable. You just had to run green-white or thereabouts, like Brian Kibler at U.S. Nationals (though apparently less so in the Top 8) or eventual Champion Julien Nuijten at Worlds; some kind of anti-Affinity full of instant-speed artifact destruction or recurring Viridian Shamans like Craig Krempels and the TOGIT crew.

One of the things I always loved about Affinity, even as it was sucking the life blood out of tournament attendance (the ultimate catalyst for Ramp;D's bringing the ban hammer down on anything that had ever come near an artifact land) was that even though it was, yes, quite dumb; even though it essentially forced players to go Affinity or anti-Affinity to compete; Affinity itself rewarded perfect play. There was a tremendous difference between Affinity executed precisely, Affinity running the numbers and Affinity just lucking into more copies of Disciple of the Vault (though, let's be honest, it wouldn't have been sucking the life blood out of tournament attendance if there weren't plenty of that, too).

By the way, the above listed deck, played by the incomparable Jelger Wiegersma, was Block Constructed.


Paul Cheon's Faeries

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Here is one that is pretty recent.

There is generally a boogeyman across the vast majority of formats that stick around for any period of time, but I think Faeries was a particularly failed one.

Faeries was horrible in that none of its cards rose to being massively banned like the Affinity cards, but they were frustrating from a player perspective. I won't begrudge anyone for playing Faeries from a pure EV perspective—I went through a stretch after Paul Cheon made the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals with his Shadowmage Infiltrator version where I played it myself, shocked at how easy it was to win games compared to anything else—but anyone who actually enjoys playing Faeries has got to be a bad person, as far as I can tell.

I think Faeries was worse than Affinity in terms of a linear strategy on too many steroids, that Bitterblossom and Mistbind Clique were more hateful than Rishadan Port, and that from a skill perspective, Faeries sets an even lower bar than Mogg Flunkies Deadguy Red. Again, I am not saying that choosing to play Faeries in Standard in order to do well in a tournament makes you a bad person ... but 100% of everything else Faeries is morally bankrupt, empty of fun, and demanding of no particular skill. Complain all you want about Jund, but even the feeling of a pair of Blightnings coming down on you doesn't compare with the soul-crushing pall of a Bitterblossom-into-Mistbind Clique.

There was a point where Faeries players argued for the skill level required to mulligan hands in the mirror, but honestly, the presence of a Thoughtseize or a Bitterblossom (or a Broken Ambitions, on the play, in the alternative) largely comes down to pattern recognition. The tribal-ness of Bitterblossom could even bail you out against a Cloudthresher or Volcanic Fallout with Mistbind Clique on the stack! That goes beyond what we have talked about regarding basically every other boogeyman. You can in fact interact with Faeries, draw exactly the cards that Faeries is supposed to fear ... and it doesn't even matter. There is no comparison between the Fae and Jund, especially as Jund is actually more skill-intensive to play.

I wrote this article as, surprisingly, a defense of Jund. Why might it need defense? Isn't dominating every tournament enough?

The roots of this argument are actually in rebuttal. There is a sentiment propagated by some pundits that Jund is low skill level due to the presence of Blightning. I would ask if these pundits have seen—or participated in—many significant Jund games.

Aside on Professional Wrestling and the Pro Bowl:

I equate a lot of poorly considered decisions to the Pro Bowl in the NFL.

The Pro Bowl is the NFL "All-Star Game" and occurs at the end of the season rather than the middle of the season like the NBA All-Star Game. That's not the inherent flaw, though.

Unlike other All-Star Games, a third of the players in the Pro Bowl are (currently) chosen by NFL players themselves. Imagine for a moment you are an NFL player trying to figure out who you should vote into the Pro Bowl. You are playing a game of which tackling is an important component. Who is going to get your vote?

There is a huge flaw here. It doesn't translate across every player, but it is a flaw that does not exist in many or most other sports. In football, as a player choosing other players, you might cast a vote, say, based on who really clocked you one. Getting hit really hard—even once—is quite memorable, and can color votes in a game like this.

Back during the height of the Monday Night Wars—probably around 1995 or 1996—I remember watching an episode of WCW Monday Nitro. WCW was pushing their cruiserweight division and they had a stable of really talented smaller wrestlers showcasing hard-fought, technically awe-inspiring bouts. One such cruiserweight wrestler was Dean Malenko.

I remember one of the first matches I ever saw Malenko work. It was against a no-name "jobber," and Dean really put the screws to him. He ran a drop kick that inexplicably hit his opponent in the kneecaps instead of the chest (as was and remains the norm), that, understandably, floored him. Drop kicks are commonplace in pro rasslin'. What Malenko did was mean. He power bombed his opponent so stiffly I thought the ring was going to cave in around then.

Two words: Instant Fan.

What was wrong here?

The same thing that is "wrong" with Pro Bowl player selection. I had a particular experience (even though that experience took place only through the magic of television, on replay most likely). I made a decision to devote my devotion to Dean Malenko after watching him wrestle once. I can remember the smack of his boots against another man's knees, the thunder of his slam to the mat. Now Dean Malenko was a fine wrestler, but he never again awed me the way he did in that mid-1990s match.

End Aside.

How does all this match up with Jund?

People get blown out by a couple of Blightnings and they think that Jund is all bad because of it. Those Blightnings become like the hit before the Pro Bowl voting or the impact—literally—of an early Malenko. They burn themselves into our memories, push us along towards a decision ... and that's it.

We're there.

Jund must be all about Blightnings. It's all luck. All draw dependence.

I won't say that is the furthest thing from the truth, but it isn't exactly true, either. There is today great variety in the construction of Jund decks. Since Worlds they have erred on the side of more land. Some play Bituminous Blasts, others are relatively removal-light. There is a mix of Putrid Leeches and Rampant Growths and Siege-Gang Commanders, all of which have advantages and disadvantages that go well beyond the third and fourth turns of a game.

You can go back and watch some of the Jund versus Jund fights in the finals of Pro Tour or 5K events and see how players with Blightnings in their hands willingly don't play them in order to get some kind of threat on the table instead. That doesn't jive with the "all Blightnings all the time" model for the Jund third turn, does it? A throng of Thrinaxes and all that instead?

For all of the complaining some people do, you are never going to put Jund into the same kind of automatic play bucket that you would for a Thoughtseize (or Ancestral Vision)-Bitterblossom-Spellstutter Sprite-Mistbind Clique sequence like some decks.

For example .... Imagine your opponent passes on his or her second turn, going second, with a Halimar Depths, basic Plains, and Everflowing Chalice.

Say you have some of these in front of you:

Kelly Reid's Jund

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Imagine that you have a Blightning in your hand, but also a Borderland Ranger. How are you gong to spend your third turn?

The two cards are surprisingly similar in the abstract. Both of them are three-mana plays. They actually have similar damage potential over the course of the next couple of turns. Blightning will do 3 now, but Borderland Ranger can do 2 next turn, and 2 each for as many turns as it doesn't get killed. Both three-drops can put you ahead by one card, but one is internal and the other external. One card is the nigh-consensus best card in Stanard, whereas most people—most Jund players—dismiss the other card entirely.

Termed differently, what's the worst that could happen?

Imagine you opt for the Blightning. Yay! Great! Jund is all about who can cast the most Blightnings, right?

Not this time.

Can you think of a bigger disaster? What's the worst that could happen?

Imagine your opponent casts Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

You've just spent your Blightning. Jace is about to go to five loyalty. Even if you draw a second Blightning, you might be in trouble.

Imagine instead you run out the Borderland Ranger.

At the very least you are going to give the Jace, the Mind Sculptor opponent pause. Some opponents in that position will hold back their planeswalkers in caution. Others will play out the planeswalker instead. Most opponents won't Jace-UnsummonBorderland Ranger on the spot ... That seems at this point like a waste of loyalty. If instead your opponent brings Jace up out of Lightning Bolt loyalty? Holding back your Blightning instead of doing a little dance because you drew one on turn three will put you in a much better position for winning the game. After all, 2 points from the Ranger and the 3 points from the Blightning in reserve can go quite a ways when fighting a third-turn Jace-to-be.

Jund isn't automatic the same way boogeymen of the past often were. It is powerful, but has no predictable analogue to The Fix. It certainly has no Birds of Paradise into Fires of Yavimaya into Blastoderm into Saproling Burst draw. The "automatic" plays—like jamming out the Blightning—can be suboptimal, even disastrous, and anything but automatic.

So despite winning another 5K, and not winning a Grand Prix where it was more than half of the Top 8, I think the deck can get a bad rap. It's not that bad. And we've certainly weathered—even thrived under—worse bad guys.

Just something to think about.

And oh, I apologize.

So as to avoid devoting an entire article to, um, the defense of the bad guys, here is a cool thing:

    43-Land Blue

Chris Woltereck's 43 Land Blue

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Intuition makes some beautiful music alongside some of the other elements of the 40+ land Legacy deck.

You can Intuition into your one Mindslaver, Academy Ruins, and Life from the Loam.

How does one spell "inevitability" again?

A similar package involving Tormod's Crypt can shut down an opponent—especially a non-blue opponent—going for the same 40+ land strategy. Meanwhile you can use Exploration and Manabond (and to a lesser extent, Mox Diamond) to play lots of lands every turn, Life From the Loam to recoup your hand, and ultimately using your graveyard as an extra "hand" thanks to a combination of dredge and Academy Ruins.

In fact, Intuition can let you search up any singleton land in your deck, alongside Life from the Loam.

For example: Glacial Chasm.

For the 43-Land Blue deck, Glacial Chasm has almost no down side. You can play a land you don't even want (say a fetch land), play the Glacial Chasm the same turn with Exploration, sacrificing the initial land, and never even pay upkeep on the Glacial Chasm. Go ahead and sacrifice it the next turn: Life from the Loam locking arms with Exploration will allow you to re-run the same garbage land-sacrifice garbage land-infinite Glacial Chasm soft lock for as long as you have library.

Pretty cool, huh?

There is just something to a deck that can play a Maze of Ith every turn to force the opponent to commit and over-commit, while still extending its own mana base.

Pretty cool.

Now somebody please go make a better deck than Jund!

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