Last week I had no idea what I wanted to play in Standard, but I had plans to spend a few days in Verona just playing Magic Online (play the game, see the world['s hostels]).
I was most excited to work on a Prime Speaker Zegana deck with Gyre Sage, but I knew it probably wouldn't be good and was prepared to give up early. I wasn't preparing for a Pro Tour, just a Grand Prix, and I didn't have a lot of time. Without a team working on a real deck that I could play as a backup if my efforts failed, I couldn't afford to spend a long time chasing unlikely results. I played around two matches on Magic Online with Zegana before I moved on to other things.
The plan was to test Jund since Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke had put up such impressive results with it and Esper Control because Paul Rietzl had been happy with it when he played it in the MOCS. I figured if a control deck could impress Paul, it'd probably worth a look.
Reid emailed our team asking for suggestions for the Magic Online Championship finals thing, and Matt Sperling suggested Junk Reanimator, saying he'd been doing extremely well on Magic Online with it. I greedily sniped the suggestion and began testing it myself online. I hated some things about the list, but they were easily fixed (just a few of the lands). I was winning a lot with it.
I played around fifteen matches with Reanimator, and then I began to feel like I should give one of the other decks a try just to be fair to them. After all, maybe I'd win a lot with them too, but Reanimator just felt too good. Eventually, I threw Esper Control together and tried it for a couple matches, but it definitely didn't feel like where I wanted to be.
Sperling's initial email contained the following:
8-1 so far today (a few spewy opponents but deck feels good) on modo in 8mans and dailies.
4 Unburial Rites
2 Sunpetal Grove
1 Vault of the Archangel
4 Grisly Salvage
4 Woodland Cemetery
4 Lingering Souls
4 Overgrown Tomb
2 Isolated Chapel
2 Godless Shrine
3 Temple Garden
1 Obzedat, Ghost Council
2 Craterhoof Behemoth
4 Angel of Serenity
2 Abrupt Decay
1 Sunpetal Grove
4 Lotleth Troll
4 Avacyn's Pilgrim
3 Tragic Slip
2 Sever the Bloodline
3 Rhox Faithmender
2 Centaur Healer
2 Abrupt Decay
2 Blind Obedience
Only own 1 obzedat otherwise thered be a second copy somewhere. Might try a couple liliana in the board against control. Still tinkering.
The thing I hated was the mana. This deck's mana requirements are pretty strict. You need early green and black, and you need double white on turn 5 for Obzedat and triple eventually for Angel of Serenity. You really want double black so that you can leave up mana to regenerate Lotleth Troll. Basic lands and Vault of the Archangel felt really problematic, and the basic Plains was almost completely useless. I immediately cut the Plains and a Swamp for a Godless Shrine and an Isolated Chapel.
Lotleth Troll really impressed me. It felt like it added a new and powerful dimension to the deck and did great things against aggro.
The other thing that impressed me is how meaningless graveyard hate felt. People would spend Tormod's Crypt to stop me from using the flashback on a Lingering Souls and reset my graveyard, or they'd play a Grafdigger's Cage or Rest in Peace and I'd kill it with Abrupt Decay or Acidic Slime. I won one game with four Unburial Rites in my hand against a Grafdigger's Cage because the other things I'd done were good enough.
People know that Rest in Peace is probably going to die, but it's extremely powerful against Human Reanimator anyway because it resets all the work they've done getting a critical mass of Humans in their graveyard. With this deck, they get rid of whatever you had, but then you kill it. All you need is for a single creature to go to your graveyard again and your Unburial Rites is as good as it ever was.
Speaking of Human Reanimator, I was worried that it would be a difficult matchup. I thought maybe I was too midrangey and they would just go over the top and combo me out, but in the few games I played, it didn't really feel like that was what happened. Their attempts to buy time to fill their graveyard don't really do anything (and yours don't either), but because they never kill any of your guys, if you can ever Reanimate a Craterhoof Behemoth, they're dead. That just takes less setup/happens faster than the Angel combo, and if you both have Deathrite Shaman, you crush them because your creatures are much better than theirs.
I was 20-5 when I was 25 matches in on Magic Online, which is an exceptional win rate. (I think 60-66% tells me a deck is fine but might not be anything special, below that means it's probably bad, and above that means I'm probably on to something. I think I'm slightly more comfortable putting more weight in that than my peers.) I was pretty sure this was the deck for me.
Friday night I met up with Raphael Levy because we were staying together for the weekend. I told him I was going to play Junk Reanimator, and he was happy because he was planning to play it as well. I told him about the list I was going to play, and he was excited about some of the things that were different in my deck. Martin Juza had given him his list, but he liked the idea of not playing so many Elves. He had some questions about the deck, so I played a few matches on Magic Online. He watched and decided that he didn't really like the curve in the build I was playing. He felt like it didn't have enough high-impact cards before five mana, and he really wanted Restoration Angel.
Just to be sure, I tried Juza's list. I felt like the Mulches and Grisly Salvages were too weak without Lingering Souls to hit. The deck was trying to do too many things by supporting Restoration Angel—synergy with that pulled from synergy with the rest of the deck, and it just lacked focus.
Also, playing Arbor Elf required more Forests, Borderland Ranger wanted more basics in general, and all the elves wanted Gavony Township, so the lands were much worse at making colored mana. This wasn't as much of a problem without Lotleth Troll, but overall I felt much worse about this build.
I didn't mind not having a four-mana spell because it gave me a turn to play a tapped land and regenerate Lotleth Troll or flashback Lingering Souls and play a two-drop. On a good draw I could flashback Unburial Rites.
Centaur Healer and Borderland Ranger are just much weaker Magic cards than Lingering Souls, and while Restoration Angel is a stronger card than Lotleth Troll, I'd been very impressed by the it in this deck. I decided to reevaluate a few things, fixed the mana, and added Sever the Bloodline to the maindeck, but for the most part, I was happy with my list. Raph decided to play Bant.
Fixing the mana meant making sure that I had fourteen cards with basic land types (cutting a Sunpetal Grove for a Temple Garden) and cutting Vault of the Archangel, which almost never did anything, for Cavern of Souls, which I felt would make the deck a little more consistent and occasionally be amazing. I played a very long game 1 against Esper on camera late in the tournament where I would have won on the spot for several turns if I'd drawn the Cavern; I was definitely happy with the change and not playing any other colorless lands.
- 4 Angel of Serenity
- 3 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 2 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 1 Deathrite Shaman
- 4 Lotleth Troll
- 4 Thragtusk
- 1 Obzedat, Ghost Council
I would have loved a little more removal in the sideboard, either Tragic Slip because it's good against aggressive decks and can kill Olivia or Ultimate Price because it's better against aggressive decks, but I had no idea how to make room. Acidic Slime might not be necessary, but it did some good work for me. Game 2 of that Esper match I won by sliming three lands, and in another round I was slowed by a Grafdigger's Cage but eventually Slimed it and won immediately after that. I like that I can bring it in to fight hate and find it with Grisly Salvage, but maybe Abrupt Decay is enough.
I lost to Samuele Estratti's Naya Blitz deck on the first day and was defeated Blitz again on the second. Both matches went to three games and felt very winnable, but the matchup is definitely close. A few more sideboard cards would go a long way to locking it up.
I lost one of many matches against Jund because my opponent emptied my hand with Rakdos's Return and then cast Olivia in games 2 and 3, and both of those games still felt close. The Jund matchup is very good.
I lost to U/W/R Flash in the last round because I mulliganed five times in two games. I've only played three matches against the deck, but Sperling tells me the matchup is extremely favorable.
What does all this mean for the future?
It's hard to say. Shahar Shenhar, while crushing people with Jund on his way to a Top 8 finish, said he thinks Jund is just a bad Junk deck right now. I think I agree. I answered Unburial Rites when asked what the most powerful card in Standard is over the consensus answer of Sphinx's Revelation. The reason is that Unburial Rites is the most unfair card. Sphinx's Revelation generates a huge effect, but it costs a lot of mana to do it; Unburial Rites generates card and mana advantage and, in this deck, requires very little setup. When Grisly Salvage is an Impulse that gives you a free four-mana Thragtusk, Angel of Serenity, or Craterhoof Behemoth, it's almost impossible to lose. In one match, in my first game against Jund, I flipped three Unburial Rites with a Grisly Salvage. How can my opponent hope to win from there?
Normally, when a graveyard deck puts up a solid result one week, it's risky to play it again the next week, but the hate cards do so little to fight this deck's real strategy that I wouldn't really care if I knew that every opponent would have two to four graveyard hate cards in their sideboard. This is just a midrange deck that generates a lot of free value. It feels weird to call it "free" value since there are obviously costs to building the deck to do that, but the costs are just so trivial. Mulch and Grisly Salvage are respectable cards to play in this deck even when all they do with your graveyard is force your opponent to fear it. The costs are just unbelievably trivial, and the gains are absurd.
This isn't to say the deck is unbeatable, but beating it requires finding a boarder strategy that's well positioned against it, not just playing a few hate cards. As Jund has been demonstrating, finding a strategy that's well positioned against powerful midrange value cards isn't an easy prospect.
Going super aggressive worked for some of my opponents this weekend, but in my experience, it hasn't actually been a reliable plan to win more than 50% of matches against this deck. Going bigger maybe? But how? Esper and Bant have been having huge problems with the graveyard decks because the card advantage is just so fast and efficient (Lingering Souls, Thragtusk, Unburial Rites, Angel of Serenity); anything remotely slow risks getting trumped by Craterhoof Behemoth unless they have a specific plan for that.
How does one beat this version of Reanimator if that's the only goal? Well, ultimately all the deck does is play creatures and attack with them, so honestly maybe Turbo Fog is the answer if your goal is exclusively to beat this deck. It doesn't sound like where I'd want to be in the format as a whole though. (How do you beat Esper or Human Reanimator? You're going to be hard pressed to actually Fog enough to beat the beatdown decks, and if they have Hellrider, it's just over.)
I don't know what the best plan is, but I'm sure someone will find it. For now, let's briefly look at what else is going on in Standard.
The Aristocrats won Grand Prix Rio, which I'm happy to see even though I didn't play it and think Reanimator is a little better. I still like the deck, and I think it's probably a little underplayed. I like cutting Boros Reckoner from the main, and I like the inclusion of Tragic Slip to help in the aggro matches where the deck is a little worse for not having Boros Reckoner. I would probably still sideboard it, but I could see dropping it entirely being correct. Three Orzhov Charm is the decision I like least. I love that card in that deck, but Tragic Slip makes enough sense that I don't hate it.
Jose Francisco Silva beat Reanimator on his way to the finals, which isn't all that surprising to me. Maybe The Aristocrats will be one of the better choices moving forward if it does in fact have a good Reanimator matchup. Demons and Falkenrath Aristocrat, especially with Silverblade Paladin, is a good way to bypass all the value Reanimator is trying to generate, and you have good removal options for Angel of Serenity, which is likely to be too slow.
Jund Aggro was the "other winner" since they didn't play out the finals. I said that I didn't think anyone should be playing this deck in the coverage of Verona, and I'm not really sure if that's true. I guessed that it was just a worse version of Naya Blitz, but that's based on a relatively small sample size of playing against both of them, primarily with Reanimator. If Reanimator is the deck to beat, Jund can better use Deathrite Shaman to do it.
Standard is in a place where I expect the decks that did well this week to continue to do well for a while rather than be quickly replaced by decks that are well positioned against them as has happened for a while, but I'm definitely not confident about that. I also think there's still a lot of room for completely new decks to emerge, so I'd keep on brewing.
Thanks for reading,
@samuelhblack on Twitter