Last weekend, I reached the semifinals of Grand Prix Quebec City with Standard Jund.
I'll start by touching briefly on the tournament and offering an updated decklist, but today's article will mostly be devoted to a sideboarding guide and in-game tips for playing Jund.
I locked up my Top 8 slot at 1:30 PM Eastern Standard Time. I spent my intentional draw rounds eating maple syrup pie, enjoying the beauty of Quebec City, and appreciating the quality poutine you can't find outside of French Canada. Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, some of my less fortunate and more foolhardy friends were sitting in a sweaty, overcrowded Charlotte, North Carolina convention center waiting for their round to start. Some of them too were battling it out with Jund—in side events—and having success equal to or greater than my own.
In sanctioned matches, my personal record with Jund is now eighteen wins and four losses. Shahar Shenhar put up an 11-4 record in the GP, Owen Turtenwald placed second in a StarCityGames.com 10K tournament, and Matt Linde crushed back-to-back-to-back GP side events, all with Jund decks 72 or more cards the same.
Perhaps you're getting sick of hearing how good Jund is. I'm forced to stress the point (although I'll admit that it's no chore for me) because of something I wrote in last week's article.
"Standard is a diverse and terrific format; you can truly play whatever you deck suites you."
I no longer feel this is the case. As Jund has proven itself again and again, a variety of fast and punishing aggro decks have continued to force out Standard's other strategies like Esper, Bant, and Reanimator. I'm now thoroughly convinced that a Jund deck geared to beat aggro is the best choice for any Standard event in the near future.
In the Swiss rounds of Grand Prix Quebec City, I faced two Reanimator decks (matches I split one to one), and the rest of the rounds were against aggressive creature decks (which I defeated soundly until the semifinals). Now, other decks were out there and will inevitably continue to be, but they were the minority. What's more is aside from Reanimator, which was played by excellent players with a finely tuned list, slower decks did not remain at the top tables deep into the tournament.
Tragic Slip was the biggest addition (to the maindeck) between the Pro Tour and the Grand Prix, and it was the card that impressed me most this past weekend. As Champion of the Parish, Experiment One, Boros Elite, and Arbor Elf become the most played one-drop creatures, there's little reason to choose the clunkier Dead Weight and Pillar of Flame over Tragic Slip. Tragic Slip is also the best available answer to Falkenrath Aristocrat, which is otherwise a problem card for Jund.
Compared to Dead Weight, the instant speed saves you four damage from Aristocrat's hasty attack, and while two Humans can put the Vampire out of range of Dead Weight, it would take sacrificing thirteen Humans to save it from a Slip! Slip provides additional answers to problem cards like Thundermaw Hellkite, Wolfir Silverheart, and Olivia Voldaren, too, which I certainly won't turn down. Finally, such a cheap instant is perfect for flipping your Huntmasters back and forth.
I may as well begin with the deck that knocked me out of the Grand Prix: super-aggressive Naya Blitz. I defeated Nico Christiansen in the Swiss, but he was able to get his revenge in the semifinals, where his higher seed allowed him to play first. Game 1 looked bad for me from the start, but a fortunate turn of events allowed me to stabilize with Olivia Voldaren at one life. Nico had three or four draw steps to find one of his remaining Searing Spears, which he did to finish me off.
Game 2 I got to be on the play and had a great draw against Nico's mulligan. Game 3 was one for the history books as Nico started on the play and led with Champion of the Parish into Champion of the Parish and Experiment One and then on turn 3 played Burning-Tree Emissary and Mayor of Avabruck and attacked me for fourteen! I had kept Murder, Murder, Huntmaster of the Fells, and four lands and conceded the game without playing a spell!
(As an aside, I would keep that hand again, although it is certainly towards the lower end of what I'm willing to settle for on the draw in such a matchup.)
As my sad tale suggests, this is a matchup where you are likely to lose to your opponent's very best draws, but I feel Jund is a statistical favorite on the whole. In my recommended list, I've suggested a huge number of one- and two-drop removal spells to help survive the early turns, and once Bonfire of the Damned, Huntmaster of the Fells, Thragtusk, and Olivia Voldaren come online, it's nearly impossible for the Blitz player to compete.
Rakdos's Return is an easy cut against a deck that empties its hand so fast. Garruk, Primal Hunter is a little on the slow side as well. However, I come now to the easiest mistake one can make playing Standard Jund: over-sideboarding. Remember what the deck you have in your hands is—it has 31 mana sources, no true card drawing, tons of pinpoint removal, and your goal is to make the game go long. In short, Jund has all of the risk factors of a deck that can suffer from mana flood.
Top priority for sideboarding with a more controlling deck against a more aggressive deck is to make sure that you're guaranteed to win the late game if you can make it that far. That means not sideboarding out too many of your finisher cards. Ostensibly, games in this matchup are decided in the first four or five turns of the game. However, that will not be the case if you can stabilize early but lack a powerful play to turn the game in your favor. Draw a hand with four mana sources and three removal spells and you'll be at risk of simply drawing more lands than your opponent and dying to the last few threats that go unanswered.
As I mentioned, Garruk, Primal Hunter is not necessarily a "good" card for the matchup; in general, I'd prefer Liliana of the Veil simply because she serves as a relevant early play. However, long experience has indicated that four Thragtusk, four Huntmaster of the Fells, three Olivia Voldaren, and one Garruk is the proper number of win conditions for the matchup. In all of Standard, this is the matchup where you can cut lowest on threats because Naya Blitz typically doesn't play midgame bombs like Huntmaster of the Fells and Thundermaw Hellkite and usually has very few ways to win against an Olivia Voldaren that becomes a 4/4. You basically need one creature to stabilize the board and enough time to draw into a second threat to put the game away.
Jund Aggro is an example of a matchup where you need to take special care in balancing the amount of removal and threats in your deck after sideboarding. They're liable to have some amount of removal or perhaps their own Olivias to legend rule, and they may potentially raise their mana curve with things like Wolfir Silverheart or Thundermaw Hellkite.
What makes this a particular challenge is that not every Jund Aggro deck is alike and not every player will sideboard the same way against you. In Quebec City, I had one opponent whose post-board deck featured all of the normal weenie creatures in addition to Deathrite Shaman and Strangleroot Geist. I had another who played a bit of a "transform" strategy, lessening his aggressive potential in favor of bringing in more midgame bombs capable of winning the game on their own. Against the first player, I wanted to maximize my cheap removal and play all four of my Bonfire of the Damned. Against the second, I needed to make sure I could still outdo him in the midgame with cards like Garruk, Primal Hunter, Rakdos's Return, and potentially even Staff of Nin.
Before you know for sure:
+1 Tragic Slip
On the play, I'd even keep the Rakdos's Return in favor of a Bonfire of the Damned. If you see Strangleroot Geist, you'll want Pillar of Flame. If you decide that they've left in their Rakdos Cacklers and Burning-Tree Emissaries, Bonfire of the Damned goes up in value, while if you decide that they've cut them, Bonfires go down in value.
Be constantly aware of the threat of Falkenrath Aristocrat and Ghor-Clan Rampager. Garruk, Primal Hunter is a powerhouse in a ground creature stall, but this deck also has a number of ways to kill him out of nowhere. If you have the luxury, consider setting up a turn where you can draw cards off of a Thragtusk the turn you play Garruk, maximizing the minimum amount of value you'll get off of your planeswalker.
"Big" Jund (Mirror Match)
It took me a while to get a good handle on the Jund mirror. It's easy to be fooled because in some ways it resembles Jund mirror matches in other formats but in some ways it's very different. Like the Jund mirror in Modern, the matchup can be grindy, and every opportunity for card advantage is important. However, it differs from the Modern Jund mirror in the sense that a handful of bomb cards are capable of overshadowing any smaller advantages if they're able to resolve.
These bombs are: Rakdos's Return—unique in its ability to preempt the other bombs and cripple an opponent; Olivia Voldaren—she can be answered one for one, but if she ever lives, she will win the game no matter what else is going on; Garruk, Primal Hunter, Staff of Nin, Underworld Connections—provide enough card advantage to bury the opponent; and Bonfire of the Damned, Mizzium Mortars—provide both card advantage and tempo advantage at the same time, they're able to end games quickly in some board states.
Leave in zero to two Tragic Slips in depending on how many Arbor Elf you think they have. It's a fine card in the sense that it answers Olivia Voldaren, but it's not reliable and is not necessarily a good topdeck.
Believe it or not, I choose to draw first in the Jund mirror, and Wilson Wong chose to draw first against me in our Top 8 match as well. Missing land drops can be the kiss of death, and the games are never decided in the early turns. The reason is that the defensive abilities of Huntmaster of the Fells, Thragtusk, and Jund's removal are very high relative to the Jund's offensive abilities. You can take a few hits without worrying much because a single Thragtusk can either turn the game around or buy you a ton of time to find something that does.
One could argue that ramping to a fast Rakdos's Return is too important to draw first; however, I feel that hitting land drops and picking up an extra card is similarly important in Rakdos's Return battles. In short, I would choose to play if I both players could be guaranteed a good hand in every game. However, the way things really play out, I feel safer being on the draw.
In preparation for the Pro Tour, I kept careful notes about our Jund mirrors, swapping players, decks, and sideboarding strategies frequently. After 48 games, the person on the play had won 24, and the person on the draw had won 24. Naturally, those statistics are nowhere near a clear indication of an advantage for one player or the other, but since they did not refute the general feel that I had about the play/draw decision, I determined that I would choose to draw first. Owen Turtenwald made the alternative choice, and I certainly would not fault anyone for doing so.
Flash is the format's other midrange "50/50" deck, and as you might expect, these games are tough, grindy, and very close. Game 1 is unfavorable, but you have a higher chance of landing a quick Thragtusk or a big Rakdos's Return to steal the game.
In this matchup, the players present one another with the challenge of having to prepare for the opponent's creatures while also striving to win a card advantage war. On this front, Jund has the advantage since Jund's creatures will trump W/U/R's creatures in a fair fight. Consider using Olivia Voldaren as a cannon to control the board, only attacking if you're confident that the opponent does not have an Azorius Charm.
There are no easy ways to win this matchup. Resolving a quick Liliana of the Veil or Underworld Connections can provide a big advantage, but their burn and flying creatures can always steal a game from you if you get careless. Play for the long game, play tight, and always consider what cards they're likely to have in their hand.
I enjoy playing against Esper because it's the one matchup where you can feel safe cutting your creature removal and simply focus on your own game.
This is the way I'd sideboard if I didn't know anything about their decklist. One Murder is fine as insurance against something crazy like Obzedat, Ghost Council or Angel of Serenity. It can also answer Restoration Angel at instant speed. Dreadbore can answer Jace, Memory Adept or Tamiyo, the Moon Sage, although not all lists will have those cards. Abrupt Decay is for Detention Sphere, but if you see Planar Cleansing, it's a hint that they don't have Detention Spheres, so you can take the Decays out for future games.
Strange as it may sound, you're unlikely to win these games with a creature rush. However, they still serve the important role of distracting the control player's attention. I typically cast my Thragtusks before anything else because they'll either bait a counterspell that can no longer stop the more important Rakdos's Returns or planeswalkers or else will force the opponent to tap out, providing you a window to resolve a noncreature bomb anyway.
That's Standard Jund in a nutshell. As always, there's tons more to say, but feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments. I'll also be making a Jund Magic Online video, and getting to see the deck in action should go a long way towards clearing up the points I've made this week. Thanks for reading!