The Decks Worth Caring About

Posted in Top Decks on December 3, 2009

By Mike Flores

I would have liked to have done a write-up of the Top Decks from the World Championships (especially considering how they turned out—Go Andre!), but the Thanksgiving holiday interposed itself between me and the column ... and now we have the "2009s State Championships"* this weekend. So in that Spike-iest of activities, tournament preparation, we will "merely" look back at Worlds as a kind of lens, focusing a little bit differently, on what you should expect during weekend's long brawls between Standard powerhouses. Let's go!

    Still King of the Mountain

And by Mountain, we mean to include both Forests and Swamps. Of course by this I mean Jund. Jund was the most heavily played deck at the World Championships; I would expect that it is the most played deck this weekend, as well.

This, I figure, is the version you should prepare to fight:

David Reitbauer's Jund

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While Reitbauer's was not the only 6-0 Jund deck to be played on Day One of the World Championships, it is the only one to feature that uncanny two-part combination of running a flawless Standard portion and being the highest-finishing Jund deck of the tournament. Of the specific customizations available to Jund players, Reitbauer's has arguably the spiciest: Master of the Wild Hunt.

So how does this deck work?

Basically, Jund is a bunch of good cards. Except in the games where it gets two Blightnings (or a Blightning, say, followed by a Bloodbraid Elf flipping over a Blightning), it is not a deck known for its focus, precision, or customization. Jund has the capacity for aggressive draws (Putrid Leech into Sprouting Thrinax, especially on the play, most damningly followed by Bloodbraid Elf), and sufficient card advantage via that Elf, Broodmate Dragon, Bituminous Blast, the aforementioned Blightning (and now Master of the Wild Hunt) to best the vast majority of decks foolish enough to engage in card-for-card fencing matches.

Sometimes Jund attacks with its Leeches and Lizards and expeditious Elves. Other games it can exhaust the opponent's resources with Duress, Blightning, Goblin Ruinblaster, or Thought Hemorrhage. Still others Jund can play a power game with Garruk Wildspeaker into Broodmate Dragon. Almost always it can kill creatures ... Lightning Bolt, Terminate, Maelstrom Pulse, Master of the Wild Hunt, and Bituminous Blast are like a mana curve of creature elimination unto themselves, a step ladder to the slaughter.

Jund is above average (in this field) in terms of power level. However, the deck can prove erratic. For one thing, it is almost famous for its paper-thin mana base. An uncomfortable number of Jund's lands enter the battlefield tapped, and over three quarters of its spells require more than one color to play. As such, a well-placed Goblin Ruinblaster can render a Jund hand ineffective, and even left unmolested, the sometimes-slow lands can force a Jund player to run it off-curve. The Jund cascade spells can also prove erratic, as the deck is full of creature elimination spells. If you yourself choose to go down the black-red-green road, just remember that it is often not the right move to lay down a Bloodbraid Elf on a bare battlefield. You might just be taking one step (or at least one toughness) backwards from a Talruum Minotaur.

And yet, it is very likely Jund will be your most probable and thorny opponent this weekend, should you last long into the tournament. Players are attracted to decks like this for their ability to remove large numbers of creatures. The deck is powerful, or at least more powerful than average. Plus, so many top players and commentators have been calling Jund the format's boogeyman for so long that it might just prove so at States.

    New King of the Mountain

Andre Coimbra's Naya Lightsaber

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While Jund will very likely be the most played deck, if there is a challenger to that popularity, I would place my bet on the Naya shard (you know, again).

Naya Lightsaber was called an anti-Jund deck in the Worlds coverage, but there is no necessary reason to look at it (exclusively) that way. Lightsaber actually shares many of the cards that Tomoharu Saito, Ben Rubin, and Brian Kibler used to dominate consecutive Extended tournaments! Poor Standard! This Naya deck is a collection of some of the format's most powerful effects, packaged for rapid and brutal deployment.

Naya, overall, is somewhat more powerful than Jund. It simply runs more, and more potent, threats, topping up at the format's premiere finisher, Baneslayer Angel. However, any number of effects along the way are also strong offensively, and can prove inexorable in combination. To wit: Noble Hierarch, Woolly Thoctar, Ajani Vengeant, amp;c.

While Naya's Bloodbraid Elf is consistently less impressive than Jund's, it is also faster, and even a second-turn Noble Hierarch coming off a Rootbound Crag proves scarier than anybody else's four-mana (or at least third-turn) play. In fact, the other four-mana play is often better! Ranger of Eos fetching two Wild Nacatls is offensively twice the gas provided by a Sprouting Thrinax off the flip; where appropriate, Scute Mob can prove absolutely treacherous.

One of the things that Naya offers over Jund, beyond just a faster, potent offense, is a more stable mana base. Twenty-three of Naya Lightsaber's twenty-four lands enter the battlefield standing straight much if not all of the time, so Naya is forced to play off-curve less often than Jund. While Naya is also a three-color deck, it is very difficult to color-screw with a single Goblin Ruinblaster because only about one third of the spells (versus the three quarters in Jund) require more than one color of mana to play. Even if Baneslayer Angel is sometimes a little slow to strike for want of , it's not like with Jund, where a single lost Savage Lands can render a hand null.

If you have no worries about Spreading Seas ruining your day (really), you might want to choose Jund over Naya for its more significant overt card advantage and ability to remove creatures; however it is this writer's humble opinion that Naya has more, better, matchups across the field (not the least of which is Jund itself). And when compared with any of the other decks in the format, one shining beacon in Naya's favor is the presence of Baneslayer Angel, as peerless a "Get Out of Jail Free" card as you can get this side of a desperate, frustratingly successful combo deck.

    Who's the Beatdown?

Bram Snepvangers's Boros Bushwhacker

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While I expect Jund to be the most populous deck, if the runner-up isn't Naya, it is sure to be Boros Bushwhacker!

Where the previous two decks are largely collections of good cards, the Boros Bushwhacker deck, instead, represents a real limit to the metagame. Most Constructed formats have boundaries, two or three "walls" that keep deck designers confined and honest. These cards tend to be things like Arcbound Ravager, Tooth and Nail, or Golgari Grave-Troll.

Steppe Lynx (and its buddy Plated Geopede) together or apart represent the most concrete of the present format's boundaries. You can't really enter a tournament and expect to win it without some level of prepared-ness for this collective boundary. If you plan to win this weekend, you had best have an abiding respect for the one- and two-drops that can strike for 5 or more damage the turn after they come down.

Oh yeah, they are also backed up by a bunch of burn spells.

Like I said, legitimate and concrete boundary!

    The Not-So-Secret Force

Adam Yurchick's Eldrazi Green

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One of the underrated plans the Eldrazi Green decks have is to simply hide behind Eldrazi Monument. You can tap for the Monument with, well, anything on the battlefield, cross your fingers that your opponent hasn't got a Volcanic Fallout (or other embarrassing instant-speed removal), then ride whatever creature producer you've got (be it Ant Queen, Master of the Wild Hunt, or most importantly Nissa Revane) to an eventual stalled board victory. Ant Queen can produce an army of un-killable Insects more quickly than the monument can gobble them up. Master of the Wild Hunt can drag a life or so down along with each mournful Wolf, and Nissa hiding behind Nissa's Chosen hiding behind Eldrazi Monument is just a mid-life crisis waiting to happen to the opponent. First he's got all Steppe Lynxes or whatever and then all of a sudden there are these flying Elvish Warriors or Ants or whatever that he can't get through, and it's all chest hair hanging out of leisure suits, overcompensating sports coupes, and veiled misery until the planeswalker explodes a hundred Elvish Archdruids (equally un-killable) onto the battlefield (approximately 30 seconds).

The Monument is also your kind of Overrun. When you have any kind of power advantage on the board, you can lay down Eldrazi Monument, and all of a sudden your creatures all go "to the air," get bigger, and can strike ferociously, and largely unblocked.

By its lonesome Great Sable Stag is a fine defender and impossible attacker against the predicted-to-be-big Jund deck, and Mycoloth can be quite the monstrous token-producing titan itself. One card you might not have thought about is Vines of Vastwood. In a deck this creature-intense, Vines of Vastwood is a one-mana Negate waiting to happen ... that is sometimes a lethal Might of Oaks.

All-in-all, the Eldrazi represent a serious weapon that should not be underestimated.

Joel Calafell's Jacerator

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Planeswalker (4)
4 Jace Beleren
Sorcery (7)
3 Day of Judgment 4 Time Warp
Artifact (8)
4 Howling Mine 4 Font of Mythos
Enchantment (2)
2 Sunspring Expedition
60 Cards

The Jacerator deck was one of the most unexpected strategies at Worlds. Despite Calafell's going 6-0 in the Swiss Standard portion, it remains at least somewhat under the radar.

So how does it work?

Well, Joel would lay down a Howling Mine. This is the engine of the deck. This is the card that keeps the Fog deck, in, um Fogs (and by "Fogs" we mean Angelsongs and Safe Passages and to a lesser extent Sunspring Expeditions). You have probably noticed that most of the decks worth looking at—or at least the decks we have outlined in this list so far—are active creature decks. They all win the game by attacking the opponent with creatures; many of the viable decks in the format have no other way to deal damage. Fogs neutralize creature attacks: Simple!

At the same time, the opponent will be drawing bonus cards ... However, those will largely be more creatures (again neutralized by the Fog deck's baseline plan) or creature suppression along the lines of Terminate and Path to Exile .... You know, irrelevant. Howling Mine decks seem like they give up a lot of card advantage (the opponent gets to piggyback the engine, and in fact, gets to draw first) but in a case where the deck has no creatures, the opponent is expected to pull enough dead weight to balance the scales.

Just having the opponent draw first from Font of Mythos and Howling Mine will help set the Fog deck up to win (an opponent who also plays 60 cards will be more likely to run out of cards first), but Calafell built a little bit of a "nudge" into the deck list. Jace Beleren and Archive Trap can both help push the opponent along the way to deck exhaustion.

This is neither here nor there, but Kabira Crossroads is just fantastic in this deck. It's a great example of a land that functions, at least in deck context, like a worthwhile spell without using up a "spell slot" in the deck list.

Jacerator is not likely to be (or at least stay) mana-light for very long due to seeing more than one card per turn, on a multiple-turn basis, thanks to the two-mana Howling Mine. Sunspring Expedition is about as annoying a card as you can face as the beatdown, and Jacerator has Wall after Wall coming in after sideboarding. That is, it does a good job of shoring up the potential ways to lose. All in all, the Jacerator deck seems like a superb choice if you anticipate an aggression-heavy States metagame.

One card that threatened to prove completely irrelevant—but ended up very significant instead—is Emeria Angel. Emeria Angel is one bang-up of a threat; we have it blanking Thornling in green-white decks because of its greater mana efficiency and all the defensive tokens it can create; with Honor of the Pure in play, Emeria Angel actually pumps out flying Runeclaw Bears.

Emeria Angel appeared in two decks in the Worlds Top 8; one of them, Bant, was among the more heavily played color combinations. The other was a straight white token deck of unique design. Both of them have the capability of giving beatdown decks fits ... but unlike Jacerator, both decks can actually play offensively rather than "just" dulling an attack.

Manuel Bucher's Bant

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Rhox War MonkandBaneslayer Angel? Woe to the warmongers! This is a deck that just keeps on giving ... Giving life total, that is.

If you are a focused beatdown deck, you really don't want to tangle with Bucher's list. Borderland Ranger is so hard to beat for decks full of little 2/2 creatures, and Bant has another in the sideboard ... alongside a full set of Grizzled Leotau to block. Unlike many decks with such defensive capabilities, the Bant deck is also a fine offensive deck, using Honor of the Pure to good effect, and proactively defending (that is, attacking while increasing life total) with the Rhox War Monk from turn two or three.

Will Cavaglieri's Mono-White

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Here's the list for those of you who absolutely, positively, want to draw up an extra card via Knight of the White Orchid, or perhaps collapse a Sprouting Thrinax by dropping a Devout Lightcaster onto the battlefield (yes, that works).

William's deck is on one hand puzzling (why are there no Baneslayer Angels?), but on the other hand, there are some decks that absolutely, positively, have to beat this one before it hits five lands in play. Conqueror's Pledge with Honor of the Pure on the battlefield? Bad enough. Four Soul Wardens on the other hand? How about all four on the battlefield, all at once! It's happened. Like the Bant deck, this is one that can really give the beatdown hell (but in a nice way), and like the Bant deck, it is capable of a fierce offense.

    Something Other Than White and Green

Most of the, ahem, Top Decks described in this article so far have been white and / or green. This is a function of the format; we finally live in a world where blue and black aren't the best colors. But all the colors have something to offer, if only to bother Baneslayer Angels or jab at Jund.

Oleksii Antonenko's Vampires

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... The top performing Vampires list from the Worlds Swiss. Notice the unusual inclusion of Eldrazi Monument in the main and side.

Gerry Thompson's "Spread 'Em"

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... Spread 'Em?

BDM ran a video deck tech with Grand Prix Champion Gerry Thompson concerning this unusual cascade strategy. Basically this deck is designed to cascade into Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirage. The target is specifically Jund, but any polychromatic deck can theoretically fall victim. Basically, you mana screw the opponent by turning all of his or her lands into Islands; though you don't actually destroy the lands, as you would with a traditional Stone Rain–type of card, the heavy redundancy helps to ensure the opponent (in some cases, anyway) is consistently incapable of casting spells.

The cute thing about Spread 'Em is the sideboard. When the deck is in a matchup where turning the opponent's lands into Islands is not necessarily going to put up the dubya, it can cascade into Deft Duelist, or play for a large scale transformation with the same cards we identified in Bant: Rhox War Monk and Baneslayer Angel.

Or you can put the black and the blue back together again:

Michael Jacob's Unearth

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This is an implementation of the so-called Standard Dredge Deck, as played by former U.S. National Champion Michael Jacob.

The deck is essentially a combo deck; its goal is to get lots of creatures in the graveyard to power up Crypt of Agadeem. It can do that by casting a Hedron Crab and then putting up to six cards into the graveyard for every land drop (doubling up on, say, Misty Rainforest). Tome Scour will also help speed up the deck's forward momentum, as will the presence of cheap cycling creatures like Architects of Will and Monstrous Carabid that both put creature cards into the graveyard (the deck's focus) and get the deck further along in terms of basic development (cards, hitting land drops, and so on).

So once there are lots of creature cards into the graveyard, the plan is to use Crypt of Agadeem to great mana advantage. There are two potential problems: 1) putting Crypt of Agadeem "randomly" into the graveyard with the undirected milling effects, and 2) the fact that Crypt of Agadeem comes into play tapped. The Standard Dredge Deck has measures for both.

If the Crypt were to accidentally jump into the bin, Grim Discovery is there to get it back. Optimally, you can get back a Monstrous Carabid or some similar, a creature that will quickly refill the graveyard, plus help you move forward.

As to the second point, Fatestitcher is a key card. Many top players will not expose their Crypts at all (if they can help it) until they have a Fatestitcher ready. That way, they can play and use the Crypt the same turn, without putting it in the way of a potential Ajani Vengeant or Gobllin Ruinblaster.

So you've produced roughly a thousand black mana. What are you going to do with it?

The answer is unearth, of course!

You unearth mostly Extractor Demons, which can attack for huge chunks of the opponent's life total, and also offer an alternate way to win (you mill the opponent with all your departing creatures, rather than, at this point, focusing on your own deck). Another key unearth option is Kederekt Leviathan (played in the main in many versions), which acts as an Evacuation to clear the path and put the opponent on his heels, especially setting up a large attack.

Finally, here is a deck Evan Erwin turned me on to early last week. Of all the decks other people built for Worlds, it is my favorite. I can't really see myself playing Quenchable Fire in a tournament, but the rest of the shell, and in particular the mana configuration, are all fantastic. While it has a lot of creatures, creature elimination isn't very good against it; and even though it isn't the biggest kid in the room, it has a fair number of tools to even up the old playground. Oh, and Zektar Shrine Expedition. It definitely has Zektar Shrine Expedition, and if you connect with one, that is like one third of the opponent's life total (very bad if you are on the receiving end).

Petr Brodzek's Mono-Red Beatdown

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The only thing that gives me pause—and this has actually come up in testing more than once—is attacking with a Goblin Guide ... and then a couple of turns later attacking with a Goblin Ruinblaster.


But not awkward enough to remove either.

And that's even more awkward.

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