Why Play Jund?
Here are three reasons not to play a Jund deck:
- Jund decks are fair. They're not based on combos or synergies. For those of us used to tribal decks or Affinity, we'll miss the feeling of our cards getting exponentially better as we play more of them.
- Jund lacks the card drawing and permission of blue; you can neither lock your opponent out nor dig for your spicy one-ofs.
- Jund is never going to be the fastest strategy of a particular format, and it's not going to have the strongest late game either. (Point 3 gives you two reasons for the price of one!)
At this point, if I was interested in producing a fair and balanced piece of writing, I would now offer you three points in favor of playing a Jund deck. The thing is that I'm not trying to produce a fair and balanced piece of writing; I'm trying to tell you that Jund is the greatest!
So at this point, instead of continuing my list of bullet points, I need to apologize for deceiving you. What you read above, in reality, are not reasons to avoid Jund. They're the exact reasons why Jund is advantaged over so many other strategies in MTG! Let me explain...
Jund decks are fair. They play creatures, they kill creatures, they attack, and they block; there are no gimmicks. What this means is that you have nothing to restrict you from playing absolutely whatever cards you want to play with. Jund decks play the best cards available, and every card is good on its own.
My most basic test for evaluating a card (in Limited as well as Constructed) is "how happy am I to draw this card when I'm mana flooded?" Another way to pose this question is "how good is this card on its own?" or "how good is this card when things aren't going according to plan?" Vapor Snag fails the test, as does Springleaf Drum, Heritage Druid, and Seething Song. For the most part, any card you put in your Jund deck you'll be happy to see in your opening hand or when you topdeck it on turn 7. They'll be helpful on both offense and defense whether you're winning or losing.
As Matt Costa put it when comparing his RUG Delver deck to the Lord-heavy Merfolk strategy, "I only need one Tarmogoyf in play to have it attack for five."
A special hallmark of Jund as compared to other midrange decks is its high concentration of discard and removal. It's able to impose its desire for a "fair" game of Magic by disrupting its opponents' synergies and stripping things down to the bare bones, where Jund shines.
The second advantage of Jund comes when you compare it to the ever-popular tournament strategy of blue control. Jund tends not to have spells that draw cards directly, like Think Twice and Concentrate. Those cards represent a direct trade between mana (or "a turn" or "tempo") and card advantage, which is perfect for a player who has succeeded in dragging out the game.
Jund wants no part of this. Instead, it finds its card advantage in more efficient, more brutal, and, quite frankly, more effective ways. Compare Bloodbraid Elf to Concentrate. Concentrate provides card advantage at the expense of tempo. Bloodbraid Elf provides card advantage and tempo advantage at the same time. Would you like to put two spells in your hand, or would you like to cast two spells immediately? Now how about if they're creatures with haste or other enters-the-battlefield abilities? There's simply no way to turn around a game (or put one away) like Bloodbraid Elf.
Of course, we all know that Bloodbraid Elf is a standout card, and it's not necessarily fair to compare it to Concentrate. However, the same quality of providing simultaneous card and tempo advantage holds with many other cards in Jund: Liliana of the Veil, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Bonfire of the Damned. Dark Confidant, Grim Lavamancer, and planeswalkers offer card advantage engines which don't require you to fall behind on mana. Manlands and Keyrunes provide virtual card advantage and insurance against flooding.
Jund has no need for direct card drawing. What about permission? Counterspells are narrow in the sense that they must be used in a certain window and cannot help you regain control of the battlefield. Instead, Jund's answer cards can be cast (drawn) at any point in the game and almost always have the effect you want them to have.
Permission can lock an opponent out of a game, but Jund has a remarkable ability to close a game fast once it establishes a winning position.
Finally, Jund is neither very fast nor very slow. Jund is midrange, and midrange means flexibility! Be adept at adapting, play both offense and defense, and you'll never be completely out of a game no matter what happens.
Jund In All Formats
What I've just described are the inherent qualities of midrange G/R/B decks across all formats. Next I'd like to introduce you to the Jund decks of Legacy, Modern, and Standard and explain what it takes for the strategy to survive in each format.
Jund has been a fringe strategy in Legacy since the printing of Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay. Preparing for Grand Prix Denver, Pat Cox and I both saw potential in Jund and collaborated to build the most effective list we could. Josh Ravitz and I played the same exact 75. Pat's list differed by three cards and can be found here.
I had planned several weeks (even months) in advance to play BUG at the Grand Prix, but four or five days before the event, I began to notice holes in the deck. The first was the inability to remove an opposing Deathrite Shaman for one mana. The die roll is already uncomfortably important in Legacy, and I found that I could be virtually buried if my opponent led with a Deathrite on the play. Yes, Disfigure and Dismember are legal cards (Dismember being the more playable of the two), but in Legacy when you find yourself playing a strictly worse version of a card that's legal in another color (Lightning Bolt and Swords to Plowshares both dramatically outclass these cards), it's a giant red flag that you're doing something wrong.
The other hole was in the combo matchups; I wanted to supplement my discard package with a different form of disruption since it's crucial to diversify combo hate whenever possible. Unfortunately, I was finding that permission was simply awful against many of Legacy's combo decks. The decks are designed to generate unfair amounts of mana quickly, so Spell Pierce and Daze are ineffective as combo hate in all but the fastest decks (like RUG Delver). Between Duress, Daze, and Red Elemental Blast, the combo decks can easily fight through a Force of Will unless it's backed up by multiple Thoughtseizes in the early turns. In short, I wasn't happy with the blue cards in the combo matchups.
So, contrary to popular belief, I found Jund to be stronger than BUG against combo. Pyroblast is better than Force of Will in an attrition battle and doesn't become dead in the late game like Spell Pierce does. Liliana of the Veil, Dark Confidant, Sylvan Library, and Chains of Mephistopheles offer permanents that can directly or indirectly lock the combo decks out of the game when backed up by other disruption.
Legacy puts special restrictions on Jund that don't exist in other formats. The reason is the extreme speed of the format—games can often be decided by who comes out stronger in the first three turns—and the existence of Wasteland. The two factors combine to make Jund's manlands, which I so love in Modern, unplayable in Legacy.
The tradeoff is that Jund gets to play its own Wastelands, which allows you to play a high enough land count to support Bloodbraid Elf without having too many dead topdecks in the late game. It may seem odd for a deck that wants to hit four mana to be willing to sacrifice its lands; to be sure, Wasteland serves a different role in Jund than it does in RUG Delver. However, there comes a point in the game, around turn 5, when you've landed Liliana and played out most of your hand. At this point, your focus shifts from board control to resource denial, trying to reduce the number of cards the opponent can topdeck to get back in the game. It's a great feeling to look down at the lands which have already helped you to cast your spells and find two Wastelands which can suddenly take the opponent out of the game.
Legacy is home to decks that can kill on the first, second, or third turn. Even in more tame matchups, what happens in the early turns can put a player in a dominant position for the rest of the game. In the slowest, grindiest of midrange duels, both players are likely to have Wastelands anyway. So for these reasons, it's painful to draw multiple four-drops. I feel confident that three Bloodbraid Elf is the correct number for Legacy, and you may find that it's not one of the strongest cards in the deck. It's a nice curve topper, but the bread-and-butter cards are the certainly two-drops and Liliana of the Veil.
Now, Modern is a different story. In Modern, Bloodbraid Elf is the best card in Jund (depending on the matchup), and four copies goes without saying. When there's little to interfere with you making your land drops and casting your spells, nothing quite compares with Bloodbraid's ability to provide fast, guaranteed value.
Personally, I'm still holding strong with classic, three-color Jund, although I support the Lingering Souls build as well. I forgo both Souls and Kitchen Finks for Huntmaster of the Fells, which is one of the most underplayed cards in Modern. In addition to being good in its own right, it combines perfectly with Bituminous Blast from the sideboard. For one thing, having another powerful four-drop to cascade into increases the value of the Blast, and for another, you can pass the turn to flip your Huntmaster and Blast on their turn to flip him back.
Jund is the most powerful deck in Modern (which may or may not be distinct from the "best choice" for a given tournament). Its greatest challenge at the moment is the prevalence of the mirror match. On one hand, you don't want to be an underdog in the mirror when the deck is so popular, but on the other, you don't want to give up the reasons that you were playing Jund in the first place. The latter is why I've left Lingering Souls (and white entirely) out of the deck. Liliana of the Veil and Treetop Village are among the best cards against a diverse Modern field, and it's a tragedy that the metagame has turned in such a way that we consider cutting them.
I also like Jund as a deck choice in Standard. However, unlike Modern, it's more of a metagame call than a powerhouse deck in its own right. If you decide to take Jund to a Standard tournament, I think you should do so with the goal of beating up on smaller creature decks and perhaps one or two other matchups that you gear the sideboard for.
As usual, Jund can be slanted to beat just about anything in Standard but not everything at once. I say you should play to the strengths of the colors by loading the maindeck with Huntmasters of the Fells, Thragtusks, and removal against Zombies and filling the sideboard with potent anti-control cards like Duress, Liliana of the Veil, and Slaughter Games. It'll be difficult to beat Sphinx's Revelation decks without extreme measures, so I recommend giving up at least game 1 in favor of strengthening other matchups.
Notably, as midrange green decks grow in popularity, Olivia Voldaren becomes a very exciting card, as she's always at the top of the food chain when she survives.
So there's my take on the general concepts behind Jund across Legacy, Modern, and Standard. There's certainly more to be said on the topic and a lot more to cover on each of these three decks individually. Hopefully, though, some of the lessons of today's article will be applicable to Standard in 2016 or some other Jund deck in the distant future.
Please let me know in the comments section if there's interest in an article dedicated entirely to Legacy Jund.