This past weekend was the "2009s," or State Championships as we stubborn old farts of the game will insist on calling it no matter what. I had been very bad at attending States for the past few years, with last year's State Championships run aborted by a last-minute case of the stomach flu and the year before that spent out in Chicago in an immersive player-versus-environment LARP that included a fake missile silo the Storytellers of the game had built in their back yard. I'd wanted to play, but really... when someone puts themselves at risk of being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security to throw a game, and tells you you're James Bond, the least you can do is show up, right? But this year was to be different. No schedule conflicts, no last-minute bouts of wishing I were dead as my insides tried to stab me, and even a defined metagame thanks to the fact that this year's States would come after the World Championships rather than before it.
Of course, just because there is an entire event's worth of data and decklists to mine doesn't mean what you should play is obvious. Going into Worlds, I was rather enamored of Bill Stark's Time Sieve combo deck, simply due to the fact that so many of the aggressive creature decks just had no tools whatsoever to force it to interact with them. I grew less and less in love with the deck, however, the more times I played it against Boros, as even my ideal draws didn't let me start to go off until turn five, but Boros Bushwhacker is entirely capable of a third-turn kill with the following seven-card hand: Plains (or a fetchland that gets White), Mountain (or a fetchland that gets Red), Scalding Tarn/Arid Mesa, 2x Steppe Lynx, Plated Geopede, Goblin Bushwhacker. Even their non-ridiculous hands were routinely making life very difficult indeed by turn four, and being on the draw when you can't really go off before turn five and only have a couple of Fogs to try and stall those turns was a recipe for frustration.
Coming out of Worlds, I didn't have a strong opinion of what I should play for States, and made a bunch of decks trying to optimize archetypes and brew new decklists to try and face the format head-on. This is a bit of a quandary, since not only did I have to optimize a decklist and playtest matchups, but I also had to acquire the cards when the only relevant cards in the format I was certain I owned was four Maelstrom Pulse and nine Baneslayer Angels. Unsurprisingly, the first deck I worked on had four of each, as I tried advancing G/W technology forward with the following:
"0/1 Is The Loneliest Number"
I liked the idea of attacking with Steppe Lynx in the G/W shell, because I can't even begin to fathom playing the slower and more midrange-y G/W decks that were played at Worlds, trying to grind out an incremental advantage and eventually win with the last fattie left unanswered when I could be attacking with Ernham Djinn on turn two instead. But I didn't like this as the best Steppe Lynx deck, and quickly abandoned the deck to work on Boros Bushwhacker instead. It became clear to me in the last week before States that I would either be playing Jund (built to be advantaged in the Jund mirror) or Boros Bushwhacker (built to be advantaged in the Boros mirror), and between watching matches and actually participating in playtesting myself I was able to start to get a feel for what really mattered in these decks. And it was starting to drive me a little bit mad, because what seemed to me to really matter was contradictory to what a large number of clever and well-regarded people on the Internet were saying. The wisdom of LSV was not following through in the at-home games, and everyone's answer to the Jund mirror was "go bigger", to get more midrange-y in that battle of resource advantage and shifting tempo. It felt downright wrong, and I had to wonder if it was just me.
Thankfully, I am a pretty firm believer of a simple concept: contradictions cannot exist in reality, so when you find a contradiction, check your precepts. Something at the foundation of that contradiction was responsible for its existence in the first place, and I was greatly encouraged when amidst Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa's recent Worlds report, I read that he'd found the Jund mirror match to be aggressively tempo-oriented. Rather than slowing down and ditching Putrid Leech for Rampant Growth, Paulo seemed to see the same things I did: a game where parity shifted back and forth throughout, but opportunities abounded to better your situation by being aggressive when you had the initiative for doing so, and thus could be rewarded for designing your deck to seize that initiative. This helped me to crystallize some of my thoughts about Jund, and because Jund is so central to the Standard metagame right now, this helped me to really start to grasp the disparate pieces of information that were floating around out there and figure out what mattered in the format and what didn't.
At about this same time, playtesting happened alongside some hefty doses of observation, trying to figure out the Jund versus Boros matchup and the Boros mirror. Mostly observation, unfortunately, because I didn't make it to every playtest session on time, and at least one time it was just more important to me to try out Ben Hayes's new theoretical concoction, EDH Cube Draft. Observation is well worth having especially when you can observe multiple playtest matches at the same time, but it's still not the same as sitting down at the table and having your opponent try to murder you.
The Boros versus Jund matchup can actually look rather boring to the casual observer, but planting your butt in the seat and being the one facing down the Goblin Guides reveals the incredible amount of tension that is present in those 'boring' turns. Boros reaches for early damage and then threatens to combo-kill in order to end the game, so that 'stalemate' is actually anything but. Between observations and playtesting, I reached a remarkable conclusion: Boros Bushwhacker versus Jund favors Jund, but only if the pilot looks at the game from a certain perspective. First, Jund has to build their deck right, and slowing down your Jund deck gave significant percentage back to the Boros deck. Putrid Leech may stink, as some say, but unlike Rampant Growth it trades on turn two with a Goblin Guide.
Assuming that you didn't give back percentage points in the deck-design portion of that face-off, it's remarkably easy to give them back in-game. Jund has the right tools to blunt the attack, and doesn't give them a lot of time after the first wave has been handled in order to recoup a lethal strike. However, most Jund players won't play this matchup "the right way", not even being aware of what the 'right way' is, because they think that to at least some degree they are the beatdown, just because they have cards like Lightning Bolt and Putrid Leech and are used to thinking of themselves to some degree as 'beatdown' decks. Jund wins when it capitalizes on its late-game inevitability granted by the card advantage of Cascades and two-for-ones like Maelstrom Pulse, and to do that it has to be playing defensively even against an empty board when the opponent has a few cards in hand. When you leave back half of a Broodmate Dragon against their empty board after killing off their last creature in play, you're doing it right.
Having learned that Boros doesn't beat Jund when Jund always blocks, and that the Boros mirror didn't really have a lot of leeway you could leverage into a "Boros that wins the mirror" plan, I set my sights on the least interesting or innovative deck in the format as my weapon of choice for the State Championships. There were a lot of different Jund decks at Worlds, and in testing I really liked Vampire Nighthawk: it was fast, it was hard to race, and it gave you important life points back against Red decks. It sort of exemplified what I liked about Jund, as it had the ability to go beatdown or control depending on which of these two routes was called for at the moment, and allowed the pilot to pick the right moment.
I started with an absolutely generic list, the stock Jund deck, and played around with all of the cards as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. Garruk was underperforming, since I only had two Dragons to accelerate into and you had to get two Beasts out of him before he eats a Blightning to actually be worthwhile in the mirror. Master of the Wild Hunt I liked, then I didn't like (which found me room for my Nighthawks), and the fact that playing him more-or-less required that at least one Oran-Rief make it into the deck was something I held against him irrationally at first. After all, in my playtest games I never once used the Vastwood's ability at a time that mattered, and having one extra enters-the-battlefield-tapped land when I was pretty certain that I needed to play eight rather than six M10 duals led to some awkward times where every land came into play tapped and I missed crucial early tempo that even just basic Forest would have provided.
Gearing up for States, I had the following sleeved and ready to go as of Thursday night, when I purchased the last of my missing cards in order to have the deck built and ready to go:
Some of the things this deck is doing, I was quite happy with and considered to be very right indeed. They may not be flashy, but they mattered. One Mind Rot main played the role of "fifth Blightning", increasing the number of double-Blightning games I played by a small but far from insignificant percentage, and making it just that much more likely that at least once each game I would be able to force my opponent to discard two cards. If you count the lands, you'll see there are 26; this may not be high technology but I found this to be very important. I found it important to improve mulligan consistency especially when it comes to finding a missing color, thus the extra land was a one-of Terramorphic Expanse as "fifth Savage Lands", and it felt like multiple decks (including the mirror match) were trying to capitalize on Jund's inherently-vulnerable mana-base. It was just so much harder for them to capitalize on that when I just added a gorram land. However, the third Broodmate Dragon in the sideboard was indicative of the lengths I still had to traverse in my understanding of the mirror match. I wanted a third copy to bring in for the mirror, after all, or it wouldn't be there... though to be fair it had for a time 'not been there' because I was playing his jerk of a big brother, Karrthus, to mise ridiculous free wins off my opponent's Broodmate Dragons.
I didn't feel Ruinblasters were important in the mirror, and I didn't feel that I was even worried if my opponent brought in Ruinblasters in the mirror, since I had added a land to the deck to add resiliency in those cases in the first place. What I didn't realize is that the mirror match is dominated by cards that cost four or less, thanks to the obvious fact that Blightning strips expensive cards and extra lands from your hand, so adding a third six-mana card that is frankly card #1 and possibly also #2 that I discard when my opponent casts Blightning was a waste of a sideboard slot, and I began to realize that when sideboarding for the mirror I wanted one or even zero Dragons post-sideboarding as I focused on fighting the Stag fight and disrupting their hand. And as much as I loved the Nighthawks, I'd found they weren't as impressive as I'd hoped in the mirror, after one too many times interrupting a Cascade chain where I needed to hit a spell instead of a creature. I had a day and a half between my last playtesting session and States to finish thinking about things and finalize the deck, and this required really solidifying in my mind what I was trying to do in the Jund mirror and why.
Friday, the day before States, would have been best served getting a hearty meal to stock up my energy reserves for the next day, then getting to bed at a reasonable hour so I could guarantee eight hours of sleep before a day full of potential Jund mirror matches. The wise tournament advice in fact requires that time to be spent as if it were part of the tournament itself, focusing on putting yourself into an advantageous physical state so you can grind through hours of competition and still have something in the tank if you make the finals. This did not happen. Instead the evening was spent with my new girlfriend Jenny, as we've found that she's more productive working on papers and studying for her finals as a third-year law student if she has someone around who would be able to see if she was looking at LOLcats all night instead of writing her paper, and I am happy to spend an evening reading some books that are on my "to-do list" for research for that book-thing I'm theoretically writing. I'd expected around midnight I'd say good night and head home; instead, around midnight the company became snuggly, and sleep far less important... after all, isn't Jund the deck that plays itself?
About five hours of sleep later, it was time to wake up and drive to Kings Games in Brooklyn on a cold, wet day, find parking in a neighborhood that is not exactly easy to find a parking spot in ("Brooklyn"), and murder some people with the Jund deck. Some desperate asking-around was able to find me the two cards I was looking for, and I registered the following 75:
As round one began, we were informed that there were exactly 128 players that day, making for a seven-round tournament. It's been a long time since I've had to play only seven rounds for a major tournament, and those of us from the playtesting group who decided to come to Brooklyn instead of head over to New Jersey were pleased indeed at the choice when we found out that there would be an extra round in the Jersey tournament... quite a few New York City area players went to Jersey instead, and if just one of them hadn't we'd have had eight rounds as well.
For the first round, I was paired against Matthew Polvino playing Boros Bushwhacker, and he starts off with the natural 20 to be on the play. The matchup went as it usually does, with two exceptions: I played a Blightning in game one that was more worth casting than most of them are, as it counteracted his Ranger of Eos when I had otherwise worked the game into a reasonable semblance of parity, and for the second game he double-mulliganed on the play. Rather than give the play-by-play, I'll talk about the matchup in general, as I feel that I see it differently than the norm and thus behave differently.
When playing against Boros, my one and only priority is to maintain my life total. Whether that is by using removal aggressively or leaving back creatures defensively, and let's be honest I am usually doing both, you have to recognize the fact that they have the potential to do a lot of damage coming out of nowhere so long as they have a few cards in hand, whether it is all Lightning Bolts or a big Bushwhacker turn. Playing to respect the fact that you are always closer to dead than it looks like you are will consistently reap rewards, so my rule is "always block". Block early, block often, rely on the card advantage inherent to the Jund deck, and you'll eventually find a way to kill them after you've successfully not-died yourself. I even have a sideboard card that is a little untraditional simply because it assists you in this plan! Other Jund decks frequently have Terminates #3 and 4 in their sideboard to up their removal count, but I have Burst Lightning because it a) kills a turn-one play from Boros for one mana, and b) kills Great Sable Stag in the mirror.
I sideboard out four Blightnings, Mind Rot, and two Broodmate Dragons in order to fit in three Jund Charms, two Malakir Bloodwitches and two Burst Lightning. The plan is to drop the curve and ignore their hand, using your cards to kill the ones they've already spent mana on, and more importantly to do so at as rapid a pace as possible as they are a deck that can readily get ahead of you if you don't push to keep up. A handful of creatures can still be contained, and if you defend your life total first and foremost a hand full of Bolts shouldn't beat you.
For the second round, we met the peculiarities of the new tournament software being used for the day, as round two put me and my opponent (both of whom won our first match) at table 61 of 64. I was paired up against Rob Gioia with a Mono-White Emeria deck, who also natural-20'd me to be on the play. My read on him from Game One placed him in the "midrange Emeria" camp as he had not just Knight of the White Orchid but also Kor Cartographer to help get enough Plains to turn on Emeria, but this would turn out to be wrong and those Cartographers were the only slow-ish cards in his deck, added to give him some resilience to mass removal by counting towards Emeria turning on.
I had a Lightning Bolt or two for the White Knights that appeared, and was able to either ignore or just killed the other creatures that appeared, and my main concern was in killing him before Emeria turned on and I might have to face something like recurring Baneslayer Angels if I wanted to close the game out in my favor. Because his draw wasn't very aggressive, I was able to turn the tempo back around on him just as he got the sixth of seven Plains into play for Emeria, and before any Baneslayer Angels appeared in the first place.
In sideboarding, I cut a Blightning and the Mind Rot for 2 Malakir Bloodwitch, rather than sideboarding properly because I didn't see his deck when it was working properly... in which case Jund Charms would have come in, because he has a lot more 2/2 Knights than I thought he did. It might have been good for shutting off Emeria too, at that. For the second game he drops a variety of two-mana Knights on the table, with Sigiled Paladins and Kazandu Blademasters starting to come down and tap-dance on my face. I'm stalled on creatures worth casting but have three lands and a bunch of removal spells, so I play Pulse on his Blademaster with Sigiled Paladin as the only other target, then got to smile when he played a second Paladin on his turn into my second Pulse already sitting in-hand.
Rob is able to make some good headway into my life-totals, attacking with his various flavors of Knights, but I stabilize on six life with two Master of the Wild Hunt in play to his board of six Conqueror's Pledge tokens. I actually misplayed that interaction, failing to realize that tapping the first Master on his turn prevented the second Master from doing anything, so I should have used the first Master while there were still Wolf triggers on the stack during my upkeep. It was a minor misplay that would end up not having relevance, as he failed to draw out of that board situation when he needed at least one Brave the Elements to even attempt to make headway.
For the third round, I was paired for the first time ever against Adam Levitt, from the local playtest group that had been meeting up prior to States at Jim Hanley's Universe in midtown Manhattan. Adam had likewise selected Jund as his weapon of choice, and in the first game he is able to dominate me with his draw thanks to the fact that he drew more of his card-advantage cards while I had a bit of a difficult time actually being aggressive. I have one Blightning early, but he has more of them and some Bloodbraid Elf action besides, and just when it looked like maybe I had gummed up the board so as to stabilize at six life, Adam flashed me a pair of Lightning Bolts to end the game.
Sideboarding the Jund mirror is a little interesting, but only a little... it would probably be a more interesting choice if you had to pick between more discard, some Ruinblasters, and Stags, but having found I don't want to walk the Ruinblaster's path I only really have to figure out how many Mind Rots I want in my deck for the second game, and how many Dragons. Four Maelstrom Pulse become four Great Sable Stag pretty handily, but from there you have to figure everything else out.
For this game, knowing I would be on the play, I figured that I had plenty of time to deploy discard without falling behind on the board or life, so I sideboarded -2 Terminate, -1 Broodmate Dragon for +2 Burst Lightning and the last Mind Rot. Burst Lightning kills all the cards I worry about, including Stag, and is solid against Putrid Leech, which like myself Adam was running. If I'm playing all that discard, my chances of possibly hitting a discard spell out of his hand increases, so I'm content to leave in a miser's Dragon, at least against a similarly-built Jund deck. Other version of Jund, such as the versions running Siege-Gang Commander, I'll side in Jund Charm as a sweeper for the man and his tokens, and against the four-Dragons Jund decks I keep in some Maelstrom Pulses (usually about 2) and absolutely max out the Mind Rots, rather than picking a number of them tuned to whether I am on the play or on the draw.
On the draw, I don't think you can afford to fall behind on the board, so I sideboard out two Broodmate Dragons for those two Burst Lightnings, leave the Terminates in so I can respond early and often to his board presence developing, and leave out the sideboard Mind Rot (or if I know I won't get Ruinblastered at all, consider shaving the main-deck Mind Rot and keeping a Broodmate Dragon) as you start on the back foot by default in the mirror when you're on the draw, and don't have as much a luxury of time to sneak in a discard spell without consequence to your future life totals.
I'm on the play for the second game and Adam mulligans his first hand, and while I have Stag advantage early on things get worse and worse for me as the game goes on. His mulligan hand develops better than my seven cards did, and his Cascades find him better cards than mine did. I turn up Putrid Leech to my cascades as his finds removal to go with his pro-Black creatures, and my back goes up against the wall as that was the one loss in the Swiss I could 'afford' to give.
For the fourth round, we return to the Boros Bushwhacker matchup, as I'm paired against Raja Burroughs, whom I played against Thursday in the "playtest session" tournament. Playing Raja previously helped me to figure out how to effectively play the game against Boros and developed my "always block" theory to the matchup. Helpful as this was to me, unfortunately for Raja this meant going into the round he knew he was playing one of the few Jund players in the room against whom he had an unfavorable matchup, since I knew how to do the seemingly-counterintuitive things that lead to victory against the Boros army. I sideboard the same as I did in the first round, and the games have the same outcome: some threat of danger, but with the correct defensive stance I start catching up early and pull ahead as the game goes later, to the point where I have inevitably that can no longer be forestalled and the game ends in a turn or two of dedicated attacks.
The fifth round sees me paired up against James Rosenblum, another player from Jim Hanley's Universe that I played in the "playtest" tournament there on Thursday, as I relive that tournament again in reverse order. James has a Jund Ramp-style deck with a Warp World finish and White splash for a few cards like Ethersworn Canonist and other sideboard cards, and my experience against him the Thursday previous cemented my thoughts on how to best beat him now that I was at States with my back against the wall. I'm able to get a monster start on him, with Putrid Leech on turn two and a pumped attack on turn three that follows up with Blightning as he starts his mana-ramp plan. You can call this "the nuts", I know I did.
The idea in this matchup is to put on early pressure as he ramps his mana and point discard at his hand when he's played his ramp cards, and I have a hot draw for the first game that does exactly that, cutting him off at the knees and limiting him to just one of his more expensive spells, but not Warp World as he's held at six or seven mana thanks to discard. The first game doesn't look particularly close, as I constrain his hand exactly according to script, though maybe some fortuitous Cascades were involved in that script playing out just that way. We don't call it "luck" when it's actually just math, and we find out what Schrodinger's Cascade Card is when we pay our mana and see if the cat is dead or alive.
When I'd played James previously, I brought in Stags and Thought Hemorrhages, trying to constrain his most dangerous spell (Warp World) only to find that he boarded two of them out to replace with Lavalanche as his big spell of choice. For this time, then, having seen his deck with a Hemorrhage and a few games of experience, I brought in Jund Charms to replace my Terminates and pulled out my Broodmate Dragons and two Maelstrom Pulses to fit in the Great Sable Stags, and cut a Sprouting Thrinax to fit in the second Mind Rot as discard spells will cut off his top-end spells or just prevent him from being able to find enough mana sources to effectively use them.
For the second game, we have a much more interesting adventure. I don't have Putrid Leech so the game isn't fast and aggressive like the first one was, and in fact he is the beatdown this game as I mulligan and spend my efforts cutting off his ramping. He starts on two lands and Trace of Abundance, but fails to draw a third land and uses Borderland Ranger to find one, followed by a second Trace of Abundance and a Sprouting Thrinax on his next turn. Meanwhile, I've managed to hit his hand with a discard spell once, and after he plays his second Trace of Abundance I point a Maelstrom Pulse at it cutting off the impending arrival of his bigger threats and giving me time to start catching up... but I've already lost half of my life to his two creatures, and am drawing out of a mana-light hand of my own.
Bloodbraid Elf appears on both sides to varying effects; his are a little better than mine if for no other reason than his hasty attacker is better against my life total since it's half of what his is. I am however able to keep whacking at his hand and stabilize the board, managing to wind up at two life as he exhausts his resources after deploying a Bituminous Blast or two. I'd been banking a Lightning Bolt in case he drew Great Sable Stag, and when I draw another Blightning this closes the race out in a flurry of burn spells, ending an excellent and frankly bloody game.
For the sixth round, I am paired against Ryan Martin-Patterson with Naya, and which looks specifically like Naya Lightsaber. Ryan wins the die roll and we both mulligan, and Ryan has three fetchlands on his first three turns and then gets a Blightning to the face on my third turn, while he is deploying the usual threat cards like Wild Nacatl and such. The card advantage from Blightning tips his mulligan hand over into the realm of "easily managed", and potent attackers begin to appear on my side of the board and hang around while his show up and hop towards the graveyard via Maelstrom Pulse and Bituminous Blast. My Cascades were all awesome, but that's what they do when you get a free card and a Black Lotus to cast it with, and his draws after the first few turns are land-heavy and turn to poop. A Broodmate Dragon on my side of the board cleans up the game pretty quickly, jumping to the top of my deck in preparation of getting sideboarded out.
Sideboarding, there aren't really that many cards I need to bring in, so I am just reaching for my Malakir Bloodwitches instead of Broodmate Dragons and Burst Lightning instead of Mind Rot and one Blightning. Ryan is able to get a much better start in this one, with an early Wild Nacatl attacking and me on the back foot keeping up with his threats, pointing Lightning Bolt at Great Sable Stag and again just trying to keep the board near parity as I scramble to five mana and Bituminous Blast. With the board temporarily cleared by a draw-step Bituminous Blast that finds a Sprouting Thrinax (but not the Blightning that would have wrecked him by taking his last two cards), I am able to take the initiative against him for the first time, attacking with Thrinax and an un-pumped Putrid Leech to shave off his first five life points. His next spell is Baneslayer Angel if I recall correctly, tapping him out... so when I point the Maelstrom Pulse at it, I'm able to pump my Putrid Leech on the attack, and thanks to his fetchland the turn before he's losing exactly half of his life. The next draw doesn't develop anything of note and a Bloodbraid Elf on my part pushes the advantage home, as I can attack without having to pump my Leech into a Lightning Bolt, but still can pump if his Bolt kills either of the other two creatures.
In between the end of round five and start of round seven, I'm able to do the tournament math to see if it should be possible to draw in and correcting it as we go for the vagaries and oddities that appear in tournaments such as draws and premature drops just throwing all my pretty numbers off. Before accounting for draws and drops as the rounds go on, 6-1 is the necessary record to make Top 8, with one 7-0 and seven 6-1's... or more accurately, two 6-0-1's and six 6-1's. We'd already run the numbers after round five to see if you could double-draw in at 5-0, only to have that math become complicated as the fourth person who should have been in that bracket was Luis Neiman at 4-0-1 after an earlier draw with his Jacerator deck. Round six saw Luis paired against my prior opponent Adam while the other two 5-0's started to double-draw into Top Eight, and Luis lost to Adam, meaning at the end of Round six there was one 6-0, two 5-0-1's, nine 5-1's and four players at 4-1-1 trying to win their way into the Top Eight. Four players will draw in (the three highest-ranked and the 5-1 with the best tiebreakers, paired up against one of the 5-0-1's) leaving four matches at 5-1 fighting to get in and two matches at 4-1-1 trying to get in. When standings go up I'm the second-best tiebreakers in my bracket and paired against the third-best tiebreakers, with about 1.5 percentage points between ours... which is subject to fluctuation, so not a lead I can guarantee will stick.
For round seven, I am paired against Ryan McKinney and offer the draw, thinking somehow for a second that he was the #1 tiebreaker in our bracket, not the #3... so barring a tiebreaker shift we'd be drawing me into eighth and him into ninth. He quite reasonably declines the draw, because while I did the math right, I got the name wrong, and all that effort spent trying to be smart was wasted as I instead make myself look stupid. Ryan is playing G/W and wins the die roll, keeping his hand while I have to double-mulligan. The hands mulliganed themselves, shipping back a one-lander followed by a zero-land hand. My double-mulligan hand has some good action, playing a third-turn Sprouting Thrinax while he played a turn-two Lotus Cobra followed by no land for several turns. I'm contemplating using my Maelstrom Pulse to kill his Cobra on my fourth turn, rather than let him draw a land and accelerate himself back into the game, but decide it's a more valid play after combat. When I attack, he blocks with Cobra and uses Path to Exile to turn his chump-block into a Rampant Growth instead, getting him his third land and leaving me feeling like a genius because I chose a line of play that kept a card in my hand when I'd double-mulliganed, in case his desperation was enough to point his removal spell at his own dude.
The second attack from the Thrinax sees it removed from the game as well, next in line on the path to Exile, and I play a Putrid Leech who is looking very lonely on this board. His next play is a Baneslayer Angel, which I point my Maelstrom Pulse at, leaving me with five lands in play and just Bituminous Blast in hand. He follows up with Emeria Angel and another land, which for obvious reasons such as "I'm a better card than you are" decides not to block when I attack with Putrid Leech. He follows up Emeria Angel with Baneslayer #2, and knowing I have to get a little bit lucky to make it out of this game, I point my Bituminous Blast at Emeria Angel and flip Terminate for his Baneslayer Angel. Okay, fair enough, there is at least some luck to Cascading, and my luck is dragging me right back into this game while any non-Bloodbraid creature, or any discard spell, or Lightning Bolt all saw me dying to Baneslayer Angel, and I'd already used a Pulse, meaning I needed to hit five good ones versus sixteen bad ones and four second chances via Bloodbraid Elf. Yes, it was nice, thank you very much. The Leech attack continues, while he plays his third Baneslayer Angel versus my now literally empty hand. Since I am at this point clearly a member of the Runs-Good Club, I pull Bituminous Blast and point it at Baneslayer Angel, flipping Lightning Bolt to finish off the kill and earning the concession when I rip yet again and play Broodmate Dragon to follow these shenanigans up.
I tell him the draw is still on the table if he wants it, going into game three, figuring I have (say) a 20% chance of missing Top 8 if I play out the match, and a 10% chance of missing the Top 8 based on my tiebreakers, with him coming in 8th and me 9th if that happens. I sideboard in three Jund Charms, two Burst Lightning and two Malakir Bloodwitch for my Broodmate Dragons, Mind Rot and four Blightnings, figuring so long as I control the board I can push through this one, and the discard cards that will both be harder to leverage profitably on the draw as well as turn the Cascades into a lottery I can actually lose. While shuffling he thinks about it and ends up accepting the draw, as the math is now to him "20% make Top 8, 80% get nothing" to "10% make Top 8, 100% get a significant prize, and 90% go see his girlfriend after having gotten said prize". After it's agreed to and done with, I tell him I'll give him some product if I make Top 8 and he doesn't; when it's said and done, my tiebreakers improve by 1%, his degrade by 1%, and I'm 8th to his 9th, so I give him a quarter-box of my product as well as my condolences, having finished ninth at entirely too many tournaments to even want to remember.
Luis finishes 10th with Jacerator, instead of 9th as he would have finished without my drawing, while I am in as the 8th seed and get to face the repercussions of my drawing into 8th, getting to face Adam again. After all, as I well knew, Adam had to play Luis instead of drawing in round six and because of that played-out match is the #1 seed, giving us a quarterfinals rematch. There are a total of four traditional Jund decks in the Top Eight, plus one 'untraditional' Jund deck with Sedraxis Specter, one Boros Bushwhacker, one Bant Aggro deck and one G/W Aggro deck in the Top Eight. Myself and Adam are paired against each other, both with just three color Jund decks, while four-color Jund faces Boros, and both G/W and Bant face the other two Jund decks in the Top Eight.
For the quarterfinals, the games are over stupidly fast. Where Adam served up a ridiculous beating to me in round three, and we were finished in fifteen minutes, I served up even more vicious beatings against him and we were done in ten. For the first game I keep a two-lander with double Blightning and other goodies, including a Lightning Bolt to defend and a Putrid Leech if I draw a Green source for turn two... which I do, by way of Verdant Catacomb to go with my turn-one Dragonskull Summit, setting Adam up for the Leech into Blightning draw. My first Blightning nabs a Dragon and a land, while my second comes the following turn and hits Bituminous Blast and land and I play a Savage Lands as my fourth land. My third Blightning, well... it was messy, and hit two copies of Bloodbraid Elf for a virtual four (or more) cards worth of advantage.
Being on the draw, I sideboarded differently than the last time we played, and the sideboard plan I have for the mirror was mentioned up above when last I faced Adam. I know he has Ruinblasters, so I have zero Dragons after sideboarding for the mirror match and zero regrets for this fact, when I see so many other players (Adam included) with Dragons still in their deck post-board. The second game I don't even remember, save to say that I started with one Blightning and then drew or Cascaded into two more, and I'm able to withstand one discard effect from him and then use the rest of my hand to mop up the threats he'd already played or topdecked since the orgy of Blightnings ripped six cards from his grip. Six Blightnings in two games should kill pretty much anyone, and Adam is no exception to that rule I just made up.
Unsurprisingly, I'm set to face the Jund mirror for the next round, playing against Jim Davis, whom some might remember from playing a Cascade-style deck at the Cascade Pro Tour and having an undefeated record in the mirror by choosing to draw first. Little chance of anyone drawing first here, as Jim wins the die roll and elects to play first. Jim is playing the Ramp-style version of Jund, with Rampant Growth instead of Putrid Leech, plus Siege-Gang Commander and numerous Dragons at the top of his curve. While it's a valid choice, it's not my preference, and for this matchup it takes away some of the strange fluidity of the mirror: instead of "who's the beatdown" being determined by the hands drawn and the sway of tempo back and forth as initiative passes with each turn played, I'm the beatdown because I have the aggressive build and he has the more expensive cards to punish me for not being the beatdown.
For the first game, Jim mulligans on the play, and is on the defensive from the get-go. I don't have a Putrid Leech but do start with Sprouting Thrinax, and he plays his own to block and trade with my Bloodbraid Elf when I Cascade the next turn into the singleton Mind Rot if my remembrance is correct. (It was definitely the Mind Rot game one, but whether it was Cascaded or drawn the notes don't say.) He plays a second Thrinax, making the board my Thrinax versus his Thrinax plus three tokens and him more-or-less tapped out; I spend a Lightning Bolt on his Thrinax then the Maelstrom Pulse I'd been trying to figure out how to get value out of to sweep the six tokens out of the way and get in with my Thrinax. After some attacking I cast myself a Broodmate Dragon with him at eight life, and after his next draw yields nothing we're off to the second game.
Unlike my previous Jund match, I can use Jund Charm quite effectively against his Siege-Gang Commander. Being on the draw and with him having ramp effects, I know I am going to get Ruinblastered, and possibly as early as his third turn, so I'm definitely cutting Dragons to cram the deck full of low drops. I swap out four Pulses for Stags, cut my two Dragons and add two Jund Charms, and pull out the Terminates for Burst Lightnings as one of these two kills Stag and the other doesn't.
For the second game, I am able to get an early drop on him with Putrid Leech while we exchange discard effects and I land a Great Sable Stag, but he steadily works his way back into the game with a Siege-Gang Commander. Jim is giving up life points measure by measure for board advantage until he has stabilized at exactly one life, but has me dead in two turns to his Siege-Gang Commander plus leftover token and can draw numerous cards to increase that clock. I can of course draw any number of things as well, with him at but one life, but my two remaining draw steps yield two lands, which is fair considering how hot those draw steps had been running in previous games.
I keep my sideboarding as-is for the third game, after fidgeting with the Mind Rot I sideboarded out and considering adding it and its friend back in for the Jund Charm I am figuring might contain his Siege-Gang Commanders. For the third game, I start with a turn-two Putrid Leech again, greatly dictating the tempo of the game in my favor. He plays a Sprouting Thrinax on his turn, and I pump my Leech when Thrinax blocks and after combat cascade a Bloodbraid Elf into a Great Sable Stag. I get Ruinblastered, but attack with the team into his Ruinblaster plus tokens, and he blocks two tokens to Bloodbraid Elf and token plus Ruinblaster to Great Sable Stag, taking four from Putrid Leech when I pump it and making the trade unfair when I have Burst Lightning for the Ruinblaster to keep my Stag in play. The creatures I'd built up start to die, but a Master of the Wild Hunt makes a very timely appearance to keep things unfair on my side of the board, and I spend a Wolf each turn for the next two turns killing his Bloodbraid Elf and Siege-Gang Commander, and the advantage of that free removal greatly outweigh the benefit of the Cascaded Rampant Growth and three remaining tokens, pushing me on into the finals.
In the finals I am paired against Tom Visconti, who previously earned the spotlight of attention by qualifying with Boat Brew in Extended at a New Jersey PTQ this past year to the initial derision but eventual applause of all who watched him progress through the day. Tom is the non-traditional Jund deck with Sedraxis Specter and Noble Hierarch as part of his design, fueled by more than the usual number of Shards tri-lands instead of M10 duals and with the Hierarch and Ancient Ziggurat working to ease that splash. The benefit of playing Specter is pretty clear for the mirror match, but has an opportunity cost as well: he can't reasonably play Ancient Ziggurats and Bituminous Blast in the same deck, and the mana-base won the argument over the awesome Cascade spell, which is presumably how he found the space for Sedraxis Specter in the first place. Tom wins the die roll and starts off with a mulligan, as do I, tossing back five lands that don't make all three colors, a Maelstrom Pulse and Terminate back to get a good hand that is constrained by its colored mana, with Oran-Rief and basic Swamp as my two lands. A Forest follows by turn three, but I literally have a hand full of Red cards, which was why I had staggered the mana-base with an extra Mountain as the 26th land... with only Black and Green, you're limited to casting just Maelstrom Pulse, Putrid Leech, Master of the Wild Hunt and Mind Rot before sideboarding. Tom's start included a Putrid Leech of his own and a Sprouting Thrinax, and when I draw my 8th Red card in hand on turn four I elect to concede the game, having cast zero spells.
Again, it not being the exact mirror match there is some interesting decisions to make when sideboarding, and I favor bringing in Jund Charms again as I've seen Tom's deck has Sedraxis Specter and mana creatures to accelerate into as well as Ruinblasters coming in from the sideboard... all in all, more than the average number of creatures to die to a Pyroclasm, as well as a possible graveyard effect that Jund Charm could neutralize if he goes through multiple Specters. For the second game I am on the play and make the same sideboard swaps as I did against Jim's more ramp-y Jund deck, wanting the same cards but for different reasons. I'm able to Blightning Tom on turn three, trying to punish his slow start with two Shards lands and no Hierarch, but he discards a Specter and then casts a Specter on turn three, which gets to hit me as I cast Bloodbraid Elf and do not cascade into a removal spell, getting Putrid Leech instead. On my next turn I have drawn a Lightning Bolt for his Sedraxis Specter while he kills off my Bloodbraid Elf, but the following turn he wipes out my hand of double Bituminous Blast waiting for a fifth land with his two unearthed Specters, then when the coast is clear plays Sedraxis Specter and Noble Hierarch and my string of savage topdeckery for the day dissolves into a few drawn lands as the Specter finishes me off.
Just like that it was over, and when the dust settled I was second rather than first. In a display of empathy, Tom hands me the extra third of a box from his prize support when he overhears that I'd "done the right thing" by my seventh-round opponent, so the good karma earned a little bit earlier in the day was returned to me... just not with the prize of a plaque and free tournaments for a year, plus all the bragging rights that go with it. (Not going to lie, if I won States, I was going to follow MichaelJ's lead and insist they name the deck "This Jund". After all, no one knows how to brag better than Michael J. Flores.)
I've found there is a lot of interesting interplay with Jund, especially as there are several valid approaches to building the deck and following these approaches makes the mirror match more complicated than "Cascade well" and "draw Blightnings". I'd chosen about as bland a Jund deck as you can imagine, and I say that sort of with a bit of pride. I tried to make my Jund deck as "Jund-y" as you can get them, with a Mind Rot playing "fifth Blightning" and 26 lands to improve the deck's consistency in the face of possible mana-denial strategies, including the mirror's Ruinblaster plan. I've come to feel that the best positioning for the deck is to drop the curve and make it play its game as consistently as possible, thus the somewhat greater-than-usual chances of hitting you with 'Blightning' once or better yet twice in a game, even if you have to put on beer goggles to call Mind Rot 'Blightning'. From what I'd seen and all I'd played, the mirror match has only so many things that matter in it... and Goblin Ruinblaster is not one of those things. I never missed them, I never wanted them, and my opponent's Ruinblasters even when effective were not really important, as I'd already built my deck and planned my sideboarding strategy to blunt their effectiveness. Ruinblasters are more effective against the slower Jund decks, and I'm happy to head in the opposite direction, meaning I just don't care about them one way or the other. I had sideboard space for a good number of Thought Hemorrhages to keep me in other matchups that I just happened not to face, but easily could have and may yet again.
In retrospect, it was a great day, even if it stings to come in second place at a major tournament with serious ramifications for potentially transitioning from PTQ player to PT Hopeful for the second time this year. At least this time it wasn't caught on camera, because as embarrassing as it was to defend my line of plays in the third game after Evan Erwin caught it on The Magic Show, it would have been infinitely more embarrassing to see the finals of the State Championships and let everyone on the Internet see the riveting game in which I played zero spells.
I aim to take the deck to a $5k event in Philadelphia this upcoming Sunday, and as happy as I am with the deck, one clear change has made itself apparent to me. While the Master of the Wild Hunt earned his place and my affection throughout the day, the previous assumption that Oran-Rief, the Vastwood came married to him and had to be added to my mana-base was clearly false, as I activated its ability literally zero times all tournament and had it in play in five or six games. It tries to grind out games and get incremental advantage; I try to beat down and never found the time for it to do anything that mattered besides tap as a Forest. With that said, if I'd stuck to my prior guns and played the funny-looking singleton Terramorphic Expanse in that "fifth tap-land" slot, I'd have deployed my hand in game one of the finals, had smoother mana draws in the other five games I drew my Oran-Rief (at least one of which I ran into complications alongside my M10 duals), and liked the other advantage I'd worked into my Jund deck, +1 mana source of each color to aid in color consistency as my 26th land. I can't really live in the world of "what if", and like to be process-oriented instead of results-oriented, but the Vastwood disappointed while Terramorphic Expanse proved itself to me, so in the future I will be playing +1 Terramorphic Expanse, -1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, and re-balancing the mana turns that fourth Mountain into a Forest.
Unfortunately, this article is not a comeback... you can't expect any fresh Magical Hacks from me anytime soon. I have not yet really begun to write, as starting to write showed me all the subjects I needed to research before I could make any sort of a start, and this hiatus from writing was never expected to be a brief one. But it was a pleasure to pick up the pen again, even if only electronically... and even if it was to talk about probably the least interesting deck in the metagame. I think I've had some fresh insights into the deck and possibly some dissenting opinions on how to design it and play it... after all, I've seen plenty of Jund players lose games to Boros that they shouldn't have, and plenty of do-nothing Ruinblasters steal a game they shouldn't have mattered in because people rely on cardboard like Broodmate Dragon in the mirror match when they could have taken it out. Maybe I'm crazy, but I call them like I see them.
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com