It's been over a month since I last wrote an article about Standard Jund, and much has changed in that time. Esper decks have adopted Evil Twin to trump Thragtusk, Acidic Slime, and Huntmaster of the Fells. R/W decks of all flavors have turned to powerful, hard-to-answer threats like Assemble the Legion; Thundermaw Hellkite; and Aurelia, the Warleader. Most important of all, G/B/W Reanimator has gone from a forgotten fringe strategy to Standard's most popular and successful deck.
Many have expressed their concern to me, asking if Jund "can still be good" in a field like this. My goal in writing today is to reassure you that Jund not only remains playable but continues to be one of the best deck choices for any Standard tournament.
I may as well begin by bringing you up to speed on my own adventures in Standard over the past month. Previous to my last article, I'd had good results with Jund in Pro Tour Montreal and Grand Prix Quebec City. After returning home from those events, I continued to play a ton of Standard in preparation for the Magic Online Championship. I felt that if I could find a deck that I liked anywhere near as much as I liked Jund, I might switch for the sake of surprise factor against opponents who would think they had me figured out. I tried a variety of decks, but none of them—no, not even G/B/W Reanimator—came close to Jund, either in terms of statistics or in terms of general feel.
In the month prior to the MOCS, I felt dominant on Magic Online with Jund. Decks popped up that would briefly scare me—Reanimator, Prime Speaker Bant, Big Naya—but thorough testing always proved that I had nothing to worry about. In all my time playing Jund, I've never encountered a matchup that I felt was below 45% (provided I have access to a healthy mix of Tragic Slip and Pillar of Flame). To make a long story short, I registered Jund in the MOCS and went 4-0 in the Standard portion, defeating Esper Control, The Aristocrats, G/B/W Reanimator, and Naya Blitz all piloted by top-level players who had planned specifically to face me and my exact list.
This past weekend, I played Jund again at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Atlanta. I finished with a 5-3 record, beating two Esper Control decks, U/W/R, G/B/W Reanimator, and another Jund player. As for my three losses, one was clearly my own fault and had nothing to do with the deck. Against Joe Bernal's Esper Flash deck, I greedily spent all of my mana on a Bonfire of the Damned when it would have cost me nothing to play around Syncopate; he had it, and my decision cost me the game and the match.
The second loss was a very close match against Naya Blitz, where I feel that I would have been the odds-on favorite to win if I had won the die roll and the cards had come out the same. The third was a three-game loss against B/R Zombies, where I didn't have great draws and which was a matchup that I had underprepared for anyway.
All told, my tournament record with the deck is 27-7, which is a nearly 80% win rate—high by anyone's standards. Now, you might try to use the argument that "Reid only wins with Jund because he's a better than many of his opponents." If you did, well, I'd certainly be flattered, but I'd be forced to counter by pointing out that my results in Standard over the past two months have outclassed my results in other formats to an embarrassing extent (note that I didn't have top finishes at the Pro Tour, MOCS, or Invitational).
Even if we cannot agree that Jund is among the best decks in Standard, I would at minimum insist that it's a deck that rewards its pilot's experience to a higher than normal degree. For anyone struggling to choose a Standard deck for the PTQ season, I recommend picking up Jund early and sticking with it for at least a few tournaments in a row.
In the past, I've written quite a lot about the principles of the deck and about the individual card choices. Today, I'd like to cover a few of the potentially worrisome matchups in detail and explain why they've caused me to take the deck in the direction I have. I'll start with Esper Control.
My first round of Standard in the MOCS was against Shaun "ArsenalMunch" McLaren playing Esper. He had an excellent list and a sideboard tailor-made to beat the opponents he'd be facing in the MOCS, myself included. For old reiderrabbit, he'd packed four Evil Twins in his sideboard to answer at better than parity the cards that I'd traditionally relied on to get ahead against Esper. While Evil Twin was a fringe card before the MOCS, to my knowledge Mr. ArsenalMunch was the first to take the sideboard plan this far, and in my opinion he deserves a lot of credit for the idea.
In our match, things worked out for me to win a long game 1 on the back of my planeswalkers. In game 2, Shaun mulliganed and had a bad draw, and I beat him quickly enough that he never had much of a chance to employ his sideboard strategy. However, when I got home, I immediately set to work on planning what I could do if I failed to get so lucky against Esper in the future. The answer was to load up on noncreature threats against control.
First things first, the Acidic Slimes had to go. The primary reasons that they were originally in the deck were to destroy Staff of Nin and to blow out Underworld Connections in the Jund mirror. Despite my tireless missionary work, Jund has grown less popular than it once was; what's more is that I played the deck for many weeks with no Staff of Nin or Underworld Connections and the trend seemed to catch on. (Although now that I've posted an updated list with Underworld Connections and no Acidic Slime, there may be opportunity for Jund players to play a dangerous guessing game against one another).
The point is that at the time of the MOCS, Acidic Slime was already on the chopping block, and Evil Twin was the last straw. Killing a land is always a nice effect against a mana-hungry control deck, but putting my own Kessig Wolf Run at risk of dying to an Evil Twin Ooze was not acceptable.
Instead, I decided to max out on planeswalkers and return to two copies of Underworld Connections, which can slip down underneath permission and offer a powerful advantage that lasts for the whole game. In combination with Slaughter Games, which has earned back its slot because of Reanimator's popularity, I felt that these cards offered a complete plan.
I still won't be cutting Thragtusk against Esper, as it's simply too good a card and provides important insurance against sweepers, and Evil Twin remains a good sideboard card against me. However, with a number of noncreature cards that can grant a big advantage—planeswalkers, Underworld Connections, Slaughter Games, and Rakdos's Return—I feel that I don't need to lean as heavily on my creatures. When you have nothing but a Thragtusk and your Esper opponent copies it with Evil Twin, they've just shut you down. When you have an Underworld Connections in play or a planeswalker ticking up in the background when they copy your Thragtusk, they're struggling just to keep their head above water. It won't save them on its own.
This is the way I sideboard in the dark. Victim of Night and Murder are passable cards against Restoration Angel and Evil Twin and provide insurance against Obzedat, Ghost Council or any other crazy creature they might surprise you with. Those cards, in addition to Dreadbore, Abrupt Decay, and Vraska the Unseen, change in value depending on their exact decklist and post-sideboard configuration and can be brought in and out according to your best judgment. Some opponents will be heavy on the Planar Cleansing game plan and have no targets for these removal spells. Others will be packing a combination of Detention Sphere, Oblivion Ring, Witchbane Orb, planeswalkers, and creatures, in which case a card like Vraska becomes quite useful.
Unfortunately, the Acidic Slimes played an important role, and cutting them had consequences. If Jund has one clear weakness, it is its inability to destroy noncreature, nonplaneswalker permanents. This is the reason that Staff of Nin is the single best card in the Jund mirror (though not great beyond that) and the reason that Assemble the Legion is a popular card among players with access to red and white mana.
Enter Vraska the Unseen. While her inability to destroy a land makes her less reliable against Esper and less exciting against Underworld Connections, she's more reliable in her impact against midrange creature decks. She kills Assemble the Legion and any other noncreature permanent just fine and will never be a bad card against decks packing Boros Reckoner; Thundermaw Hellkite; Garruk, Primal Hunter; or anything of the sort. She has a huge impact the turn she comes down, and if you're not too far behind, she sticks around to do more damage. It's hard to ask for anything better than destroying your opponent's two best permanents for five mana.
Vraska's ultimate is a useful tool as well—just be wary against decks that could potentially have creature sweepers. Against U/W/R or when you decide to bring in Vraska against Esper, it's nice to simply leave her on the table threatening to ultimate. Eventually, you'll draw into a Duress, Slaughter Games, or Rakdos's Return, clear the way, and be able to win the game quickly, giving your opponent minimal chance to topdeck out of their dilemma.
And yes, I did kill someone with Assassin tokens last weekend...
SB against U/W/R:
I would bring in the fourth Liliana on the play, when she can do damage before Restoration Angels start falling from the sky, but I think three is the perfect number when you're on the draw. I like two Olivia Voldaren in the matchup because she is a useful tool, but you can't lean too heavily on her. After cutting the third copy of Olivia, I would look to trim a Huntmaster if I needed more room. Feel free to leave in a Tragic Slip or two if your opponent has a lot of Thundermaw Hellkites and Aurelia, the Warleaders.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the boogeyman of the format. I've heard some extreme claims about the matchup between Jund and Reanimator, up to and including "Jund is unplayable because it can never beat G/B/W Reanimator." I'm here to set the record straight.
I don't claim G/B/W Reanimator as a great matchup, but I don't consider it something to be scared of either. The common argument that everyone seems to use is "even if the Jund player has a hate card, the Junk player can still win by casting Thragtusks." I feel that such a statement shows a misunderstanding of the matchup; Jund is so good at playing Thragtusk creature mirrors that it's almost unthinkable that it would lose to a watered down midrange deck with no Olivia Voldaren, no Rakdos's Return, and no Bonfire of the Damned.
Drawing a card like Grafdigger's Cage or Tormod's Crypt, which does not directly help fight creature battles, can go a little way towards evening the score, but I would still gladly play the matchup from the Jund side down a card or two. Furthermore, this is the reason why I've chosen Ground Seal and Slaughter Games as my hate cards of choice rather than overloading on low-impact stuff like Tormod's Crypt and Deathrite Shaman.
Simply put, Jund is excellent at fighting creature battles, and I'm always happy to get paired against a green-based midrange deck. If the Reanimator player does not successfully Reanimate, then the Jund player is a big favorite. There are a number of ways that the Reanimator player can fail to Reanimate:
Many Reanimator players will try to sideboard in a way to dodge graveyard hate, but they're really just faced with a choice between two bad options. On the one extreme, they can stick with their game 1 deck and risk a lot of their cards being shut down by hate. On the other, they can transform into a midrange deck and sidestep the hate but have to accept a guaranteed disadvantage against the powerful and streamlined Jund deck.
There are a variety of opinions about how to sideboard Jund versus Reanimator, but this is the one that I've settled on. It's crucial to come out quickly and smoothly, giving the opponent minimal time to find Abrupt Decays for your Ground Seals and set up their combo—this is the reason that a card like Underworld Connections should not come in. Since you need slots for graveyard hate and you need slots for removal, you need to fit every threat that you can—this is the reason a card like Duress should not come in.
The two most common ways to win are by coming out fast and through slowing the opponent down by killing mana dorks. If this doesn't work, the plan is to allow both players to establish a board and then use a Bonfire of the Damned or Mizzium Mortars to break the stall. The presence of these cards is Jund's real advantage in the matchup, and there's almost nothing the Reanimator player can do to prepare for this eventuality.
I'll conclude with a fact about Jund that is true in all formats but is particularly relevant in Standard. Jund is the perfect deck for beating an opponent with a bad draw. Matt Costa summarized the deck in an excellent way by saying, "Jund will usually lose to a nut draw but will beat anything besides that." Now, it may seem ridiculous to count on your opponents having bad draws, but in reality it would be more ridiculous to discount this quality of Jund as something that's not incredibly valuable.
Take a slow deck like Esper Control: you do not have the means to punish an opponent for a slow start, a mulligan, or a missed land drop. Take a linear deck like Naya Blitz: to have a good draw against Naya Blitz means to have four mana and a Supreme Verdict. For a deck like Jund, you're challenging your opponent to curve out well and to have the right mix of lands, threats, and answers each and every game.
An opponent who mulligans is done, an opponent who misses a land drop is done, and an opponent who doesn't have the Searing Spear for Olivia is done. Over the course of a long tournament, the number of free wins that Jund gets against opponents with bad draws compared to the number of wins that Esper gets in the same scenario will create a large gap between the success of Jund players and the success of Esper players.
It's for this reason that I tend to laugh whenever someone claims an extreme win percentage against Jund. Sure, I'll grant that you will beat Jund if you have a turn 4 Angel of Serenity with an Abrupt Decay for an opposing Ground Seal. However, how many games in a set of 100 will you have that draw, and how many games will one tiny thing go wrong that the Jund player is able to capitalize on? There's no need to fear being paired against G/B/W Reanimator or any other deck that exists in Standard right now if you're playing Jund.