I'm writing this from my hotel room in San Antonio in the middle of Sunday afternoon. Around this time over the past few weeks, I've busy fighting my way through Day 2 of a Grand Prix. This week, though, I've suddenly found myself with an unexpected bit of free time.
I played G/W once again, with many of the updates I mentioned in my article and video last week. I actually ended up squeaking into Day 2 as one of the "lucky" 6-3s after losing my last round on Day 1, but I'm pretty sure I'll finish the tournament outside of the Top 128 because of my tiebreakers taking a plunge after failing to win a match on Day 2. I dropped at 6-6, which was only 3-6 if you discount my byes.
Some might take from this that my deck choice was a mistake. It's easy to look at my 10th place finish last week and my less than impressive performance here and assume that my changes were ill advised. I'm actually already mentally girding myself for the string of "I told you so" comments about cutting Silverblade Paladin or how I should have played Rancor. There are certainly changes I'd make to my list in retrospect, but fundamentally I was happy with many of my deckbuilding decisions and think the logic behind them was sound. I was just building on the wrong foundation.
It's human nature to build a narrative to explain the events in our lives, and the way we interact with Magic is no different. It's important that we objectively analyze what's actually happening so we can learn from it rather than trying to explain it away.
In particular, there's a phenomenon I see all the time in Magic when it comes to deck choices. When someone plays an unusual deck and finishes poorly, people will almost universally place the blame on the player's deck choice. "See? You should have just played [insert popular deck here]." But if a player does poorly with a well-known deck, the tendency is to look for other reasons to explain the performance. Bad matchups, bad draws, etc.
The reality is that the player with the rogue deck may have made an amazing metagame call but ended up with poor matchups and bad draws, while the player with the stock deck might have been the one who walked right into a metagame prepared for it. Magic tournaments are only played once—they aren't played out over a sufficient sample size to give us a real idea of what "should" have happened. We can only look at the information we have and try to be as objective as we can in our attempt to learn from it.
The reality, I think, is that I was making adjustments to compensate for the wrong shifts in the metagame. I overestimated the popularity of Bant Control, underestimated the hit U/W Flash would take in the wake the GP Charleston results, and dramatically underestimated the massive impact of the new Rakdos deck. In Charleston, I felt like my deck was well positioned against the other aggressive decks, and as a result I was looking for ways to improve my matchups against control decks—specifically control decks with Supreme Verdict.
Here's the list I played:
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 4 Loxodon Smiter
- 3 Mayor of Avabruck
- 4 Restoration Angel
- 2 Ulvenwald Tracker
- 4 Wolfir Avenger
- 3 Wolfir Silverheart
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
The Wolfir Avengers were excellent, and I think their value goes up even more now that Rakdos is one of the most popular decks. Mayor was pretty bad. I was looking for a card to give me more percentage against control, and Mayor is excellent there while having nice synergy with Avenger—not only can you pass the turn to flip him and still play a threat, but Howlpack Alpha makes Avenger a 4/4 as well.
He also worked very well with the sideboarded Rootborn Defenses since your opponent pretty much always needs to Supreme Verdict to beat your army of Wolves and you can easily leave mana open to play Avenger or Angel and play Defenses instead against a Wrath effect. The problem was that Mayor is just too low impact when you don't draw him early because the front side doesn't do enough since the deck isn't very Human dense. On top of that, he's just bad against the other aggro decks in the field.
I thought I had room to spare in those matchups since my deck was very good against the aggressive decks that had been popular prior to GP Charleston: Mono-Red and the more beatdown-focused Zombie builds. It was not, however, nearly as effective against the new breed of Rakdos that Jon Bolding played to victory at GP Charleston.
Knight of Infamy put a serious damper on the effectiveness of Thalia and Loxodon Smiter as both offensive and defensive measures, and Falkenrath Aristocrat was a major problem that even Selesnya Charm couldn't solve. While many of the other aggro decks typically have difficulty dealing with my generally larger creatures, the new Rakdos decks could sometimes just hold off my entire team with Knight of Infamy while flying overhead with an Aristocrat or Thundermaw Hellkite, and there just wasn't that much I could do about it.
It wasn't that the matchup was unwinnable—far from it, really. Wolfir Avenger, which I'd originally added primarily as an anti-control measure to help against Supreme Verdict, was very good against them, and Ulvenwald Tracker was still an all-star. I played against three Rakdos decks over the course of the event and went 1-2, and every game in all three matches was close, coming down to one player pulling narrowly ahead and having what they needed to close out the game.
If my opponents had drawn one fewer burn spell on their last turn or if I'd drawn one more action card before that, I might be writing about managing to scrape together a Top 64 or even Top 32 finish after barely making it into Day 2. While sometimes winning in Magic is about having a fundamentally better plan than your opponents and breaking the format, much of the time games are won and lost at the margins. This time things just came down on the wrong side of the line for me.
I also made some seemingly minor deckbuilding decisions that ultimately hurt me in the matchups against the bigger Rakdos decks. I'd been running into a rash of aggressive decks with Mark of Mutiny type effects online, and I already had Wolfir Silverhearts at the five slot in my maindeck, so I ended up cutting Thragtusk entirely in favor of a full set of Centaur Healers. While that made my deck more efficient against hyperaggressive opponents, it put me at a disadvantage against the more midrange Rakdos decks where the bigger swing from Thragtusk was more important because the rest of my deck didn't overpower them in the same way. I outthought myself and tried to get a little too clever.
That said, even if I were to solve these problems, I don't know if this deck is really where I want to be moving forward. I still like this direction for G/W better than the Human-centric builds, especially because Champion of the Parish / Silverblade Paladin based decks seem even worse off against Knight of Infamy. My inclination is that the popularity of Rakdos (and thus the Knight) might make moving in the direction of more green creatures a better plan. I'm interested in trying out Strangleroot Geist, which matches up quite well against Rakdos in general and Knight of Infamy in particular. Geist makes Rancor more attractive (and perhaps even necessary), which also helps force damage past Knight.
The bigger question is if aggressive G/W decks are even a good place to be in Standard right now. With U/W Flash in massive decline in the metagame, what's the incentive to play a deck like this? The most common decks you can expect to face, if the stats from GP San Antonio are any indication, are Rakdos, Bant Control, and the mirror. So my options are playing against Knight of Infamy, Supreme Verdict, or the mirror every round? When it's not those, it's generally some kind of midrange deck like Jund or Naya, which tend to be jam-packed with cards like Huntmaster of the Fells, Olivia Voldaren, and Bonfire of the Damned. Tell me why I'm looking to sleeve up mana creatures and Loxodon Smiters again?
One of the major draws of aggressive green decks to me is the strength of mana creatures, but I think mana creatures are the worst they've been in a long time right now. Arbor Elf's reliance on having a Forest can turn an otherwise promising hand into an absolute mess. While a hand with Sunpetal Grove, Gavony Township, and a Birds of Paradise might be serviceable if a bit clunky, once you replace that Bird with Arbor Elf, you can suddenly barely cast a spell. Mana creatures also leave you vulnerable to sweeper effects, and we're living in a world where Supreme Verdict is among the most played cards. Setting your opponent up to two or three for one you every game just isn't a great place to be.
I've tried green decks that focus more on planeswalkers for more resilience to Supreme Verdict, but Restoration Angel makes Garruk and Sorin much less attractive than they might otherwise be. On top of that, the more colors you add, the harder it is to play enough Forests to ensure that Arbor Elf is functional. I see these decks with eleven Forests and Arbor Elves all the time and wonder what planet they live on that they can get away with those numbers. I've been playing thirteen Forests and still feel like it's not enough.
The cards that really stand out to me that I want to play in green right now are Wolfir Avenger and Ulvenwald Tracker. Both Garruks are pretty exciting, too, though much less so in a world where Falkenrath Aristocrat is one of the best things people are doing. I'd like to play Lingering Souls somehow to fight Aristocrat, but Thundermaw Hellkite makes that plan much less appealing. Maybe Silklash Spider is the answer, as strange as that might seem. As far as white cards I've been playing lately, Faith's Shield significantly overperformed, while Thalia's stock has dropped dramatically since U/W Flash has been on the decline.
I'm going to keep working on a variety of green creature decks, but I'm a bit pessimistic about their prospects. I'd like to try some color combinations besides G/W, but Avacyn's Pilgrim makes it hard to go another direction. Getting Deathrite Shaman to actually work as a mana creature is appealing, but relying too heavily on the graveyard opens you up to getting blown out by Rest in Peace.
Why couldn't Splinterfright have a little while to have some fun without a commonly played graveyard hoser in the same format? Moving away from mana creatures and more toward Farseek and Keyrunes gives you more flexibility but at the cost of speed, and it's hard for midrange decks to really compete in a world where your opponent can draw Sphinx's Revelation at any point to bury you in card advantage.
Normally, I'd look toward splashing blue to fight against control, but the "can't be countered" clause on Supreme Verdict makes Negate about the least attractive it's ever been for a creature deck. Slaughter Games is much more appealing since many of the control decks lean so heavily on Revelation to close out the game. Right now, Slaughter Games is probably the best that sort of effect has ever been in a non-combo oriented format, and that's pretty cool.
For all of my gloom and doom about the prospects for G/W decks in Standard, I think the format is pretty amazing right now. We've had a remarkable evolution over the months since Return to Ravnica was released, and while there are some dynamics that aren't my favorite (like Sphinx's Revelation crowding out midrange and non-U/W control decks), it's been a blast to play and design for.
I think I'm going to take a much-needed break from traveling for tournaments this upcoming weekend, but I'm already excited for the prospect of figuring out what to play at the upcoming SCG Invitational in Los Angeles. I've had the misfortune of missing the last two Invitationals due to scheduling conflicts, and I can't wait for my next chance to play Standard on the big stage. Now I'm just going to have to figure out what in the world to play…
Until next time,