Brains! Brains! (and Brisbane)

Posted in Top Decks on October 20, 2011

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

I don't know why I called this article "Brains! Brains! (and Brisbane)" other than it is Undead Week (and zombies, a popular type of undead, like—in some media—to utter "brains / brains"... which is their favorite thing to eat), and it probably took a lot of brains to come up with some of these new decks, many of which showed up at Grand Prix Brisbane.

I don't have 100% of all the 2011s (State and Provincial Championships), but we nevertheless have quite a few deck lists to discuss from around these tournaments (and some from some pretty impressive players)... plus a Grand Prix. Let's start with that:

So RE: the Brisbane elimination rounds, there were two big and obvious decks for the most part. The more numerous of the two was—and this was more-or-less to be expected from an educated perspective—Wolf Run Ramp. After seeing Brian Sondag's Star City Nashville Open-winning deck, it seemed to me, at least, that this strategy would be this Standard format's early breakout deck. It has big threats, drops lands, and a clever endgame. What's not to love?

There were some variations between Wolf Run Ramp decks, but I grouped them all together.

For practical purposes, these kinds of decks are green acceleration decks that play spells like Rampant Growth and Green Sun's Zenith, and creatures like Solemn Simulacrum and Primeval Titan. The point of the deck is to stick either Primeval Titan itself or Green Sun's Zenith for Primeval Titan to start hunting out lands. Which lands is very important. What you typically do to set up the endgame is to obtain at least one Inkmoth Nexus and at least one Kessig Wolf Run. The theory is that an opponent who deals with every Primeval Titan and planeswaker is still dead to Kessig Wolf Run + Inkmoth Nexus.

Kessig Wolf Run
Inkmoth Nexus

Many Control decks in particular don't even have enough removal spells to deal with 4 Inkmoth Nexuses, let alone the extras produced via Primeval Titan cheats. Then, eventually, the arm-in-arm team of Inkmoth Nexus and power-pump from Kessig Wolf Run do their damnedest to, you know, send the opponent to Undead Week status.

The Brisbane Wolf Run Ramp Decks

Hao-Shan Huang's Wolf Run Ramp

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Planeswalker (3)
3 Garruk, Primal Hunter
Instant (4)
4 Beast Within
Other (1)
1 Garruk Relentless++Garruk, the Veil-Cursed
60 Cards

Huang's build was pretty close to what we saw from Brian Sondag's original... though he did vary the counts on Primeval Titan (up to four, from three), to the detriment of one Wurmcoil Engine. Huang played one Garruk Relentless instead of all five-mana Garruks. Among other things, he could piggyback his Rampant Growth or Green Sun's Zenith to hit Garruk faster in the mirror.

Jacky Zhang's Wolf Run Ramp

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In the sideboard we see one Swamp, allowing Jacky to run Memoricide behind Rampant Growth, Viridian Emissary, and Birds of Paradise / Green Sun's Zenith.

Luke Mulcahy's Wolf Run Ramp

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Artifact (2)
1 Mortarpod 1 Batterskull
Other (1)
1 Garruk Relentless++Garruk, the Veil-Cursed
60 Cards

Devil's Play gave Luke something else to do with his gigantic amounts of mana, and a big way to win in those games that go very long, where all copies of Inkmoth Nexus have been destroyed (which, admittedly, requires both luck and discipline from most opponents even capable of doing so).

Andreas Pranoto's Wolf Run Ramp

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Andreas Pranoto played his Wolf Run deck with a single copy of what ultimately affected much of his deck: Dungrove Elder.

As you can see, Pranoto's mana base moved to almost mono-Forests, with eighteen Forests and only one Mountain to "run" his Wolf Runs (obviously he can no longer reliably play Slagstorm). All of that is meant to support the Dungrove Elder, which is—though I think it is better explored in Owen Turtenwald's deck below—a worthy endeavor, and probably layers this style as different from the standard Standard Wolf Run Ramp.

Big difference on the big end: Karn Liberated.

Karn Liberated

Aside: Ooh... It Came From Wisconsin States... Ooh...

Owen Turtenwald's Wolf Run Ramp

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It would probably be an exaggeration to say that the only really important and groundbreaking innovation to come out of the 2011's came out of Owen Turtenwald's Wisconsin-winning deck (which he elsewhere credited to the traveling troupe of Martin Juza and Shuhei Nakamura), but I am just going to wink really prominently in that deck's direction and let you draw your own conclusion (which should inevitably be that Owen's Wolf Run Ramp is a legitimate game-changer).

The big difference here—the dramatic level-up relative to the Sondag trendsetter and 75% of the Brisbane Top 8 builds, and the difference that made the difference relative to the immediately preceding Pranoto one—is the inclusion of four Dungrove Elders.

Dungrove Elder

Where previously we could see Dungrove Elder as a point of influence, and accommodated by land choices, it was essentially a bullet, something different to find with Green Sun's Zenith. In Owen's deck, it is a legitimate plan, an angle of attack that is going to come up, game after game over the course of the tournament.

Not only is Dungrove Elder equally good as a card as it might be elsewhere, with Owen's mana base and spell selection we see problem layered onto problem for opponents. Like, when you shift from one Birds of Paradise (classic Sondag, essentially itself a two-mana Green Sun's Zenith target) to six one-drop accelerators, what does that do?

(don't worry, I am going to tell you)

For one, you are going to hit a bunch of turn-two Dungrove Elders on the play. That is horrendous for many opponents, especially when you can back it up with Rampant Growth, Solemn Simulacrum, the regular old top of your deck, etc. Owen's mana is extreme. Pranoto played 18 Forests but still ran 4 Inkmoth Nexus and two red sources. Owen had all of one Mountain and two little infectious Nexuses. His deck just wants to cast turn-one Birds of Paradise (which you need Forest to do if you aren't going to lower yourself to Copperline Gorge), and once Dungrove Elder is in place, you really just want more and more Forests... like twenty of them.

Dungrove Elder | Art by Matt Stewart

Playing six one-drop accelerators (and to be fair, Pranoto, above, played five) also gives your opponents something to chew on. Like, if the other team has a Liliana of the Veil or some other "Edict" kind of effect, even when he needs to have one, the presence of another small body can soak that up and keep the Elder alive. Moreover, a deck like this, which not only has 20 Forests but 4 Rampant Growth, 4 Solemn Simulacrum, and 4 Primeval Titan, can easily stay ahead of the default non-targeted creature-sweeper we see outside of Day of Judgment: Black Sun's Zenith. I mean seriously, how high is X going to have to be?

Black Sun's Zenith

Horrible horror story, you gotta say; when during Undead Week, the "scariest" monster is in fact some sort of tree.

end aside.

Blue-Black Control Decks Aplenty

Jeremy Neeman's Blue-Black Control

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Jeremy Neeman played a Blue-Black Control deck that is very different from most of the decks we have seen in the Scars of Mirrodin / Magic 2012 / Innistrad Standard to date: Lots of counterspells rather than an unending stream of point removal, 27 lands, powered up by the incomparable Snapcaster Mage.

Neeman's deck is instant-tacular, with nearly 50% instants in a deck that also has nearly 50% lands (a mere nine creatures, four of which are Snapcaster Mages, plus one Black Sun's Zenith, are the only "slow" stuff). Interesting in particular is the inclusion of Wring Flesh as a one-mana removal spell.

Snapcaster Mage
Wring Flesh

Wring Flesh can handle a Stromkirk Noble on turn one, and mostly "turn off" most every fast threat in the format. It's obviously very solid as the format moves to more Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves, as well. As the cheapest of the point removal instants, Wring Flesh—this strange, seldom seen little inclusion—helps set up a magnificent defensive curve for Neeman's deck. To wit:

Think Twice and Forbidden Alchemy help give the deck long game card draw, with Consecrated Sphinx and Grave Titan (along with ye olde Wurmcoil Engine) providing the endgame beatdown.

Worth mentioning: Nephalia Drownyard. Neeman has four after sideboarding! Another way to win, that can't be countered, that many decks can't handle at all. More on this card in a bit...

Daniel Unwin's Blue-Black Control

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Unwin's deck is super similar to Neeman's (down to the inclusion of two copies of Wring Flesh), with the most notable difference main deck being in creatures (eight instead of nine, with one Snapcaster Mage missing). Unwin also played a couple of Ratchet Bombs in his main, which actually gives his version some extra room against transformed Werewolves or the much-discussed Dungrove Elder.

Ratchet Bomb

Shouta Yasooka's Blue-Black Control

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If there is one immutable truth of Magic: The Gathering, it is that former Player of the Year Shouta Yasooka loves a Blue-Black Control deck; and in particular in recent months, he has enjoyed a partnership with planeswalker Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas.

Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas

No "Torpor Orb song" this GP Top 8 around, but Yasooka and Tezzeret have continued to lock arms into success from a little-bit-different angle.

Rather than the Snapcaster Mages we have seen in every other list (and will see in yet another), Shouta's deck is much more about playing permanents, and most of his cards come down on his own turn. That is, we see Despise controlling the game rather than Dissipate, and he has a "mere" three Mana Leaks instead of the all-out overload on permission we might see in some Snapcaster Mage decks. In return, we have the synergy between Tezzeret and artifacts in general (go get a Batterskull, defend yourself with Tumble Magnet, make Inkmoth Nexus a 5/5).

Nihil Spellbomb

Fun mention: Like Caleb Durward's blue-black "removal"-focused deck from last week, Shouta leans a bit on Nihil Spellbomb... Cool here, as Tezzeret can get one for free! Whee!

Aside: "Brains! Brains!"

On the subject of Blue-Black Control (but from a different tournament), Adam Prosak's Army of the Damned brew:

Adam Prosak's Blue-Black Control

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Just for the fun of Undead Week, we see Army of the Damned as a potential game-winner in a State Championship-winning deck, played by the veteran Adam Prosak.

On one hand this is yet another look at the blue-black "Snapcaster Mage + permission and removal" macro archetype, going all-out with permission (Psychic Barrier and Steel Sabotage in addition to the commonly run Dissipate and Mana Leak)... On the other, we have a very strategic inclusion of Nephalia Drownyard.

Nephalia Drownyard

In other contexts, Nephalia Drownyard is... a card. It has some text. It taps for mana. You might get someone with it... sometimes.

In one of these instant-heavy blue-black decks (Neeman, Prosak, et al), it is actually an engine enabler, helping to set up Snapcaster Mage like a kind of Demonic Tutor (Diabolic Tutor, really, given the two mana premium on Snapcaster Mage)... and sometimes you will flip Army of the Damned and produce lethal Zombies with essentially a free card. Yes, dear readers; the probable target of the average Nephalia Drownyard activation is yourself.

And in a deck with Visions of Beyond?

Visions of Beyond


Nephalia Drownyard is the John Stockton Steve Nash (Adam is from Arizona) to Visions of Beyond's hard finishing power forward.

I mean, "Brains! Brains!"

end aside.

And Finally, Green-White Tokens

Tim Fondum's Green-White Tokens

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Wolf Run Ramp and Blue-Black Control decks are "obvious" ... but this seems like a pretty good format, meaning we have potential play from some non-obvious sources... like Tim Fondum's Green-White Tokens / Overrun deck.

We see some great use of new "Llanowar Elves" Avacyn's Pilgrim, helping Tim accelerate to the turn-two Blade Splicer along with Birds of Paradise. Lots of great token generators here (I am in particular a fan of new (gigantic) Siege-Goat CommanderGeist-Honored Monk), and solid use of planeswalkers (token-generating planeswalkers, of course) where we have seen them fall a bit out of fashion in other decks.

Avacyn's Pilgrim
Geist-Honored Monk

Cool to notice: In a deck full of free little cards, Mortarpod can give you some pretty good looks at both creature removal and finishing games.

Speaking of finishing games, Gavony Township and Overrun can end them pretty handily when you have a lot of little guys on the battlefield (which this deck usually should).

The format sure has been interesting so far, from aggressive red and white decks performing early, into the rise of Snapcaster Mage and now Dungrove Elder (both carrying with them some color-specific requirements). Every color of mana is currently being represented, and across a fair number of different strategies.

You know what might require some real brains (brains!)? Keeping it shifting and swirling this way!

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