Grand Prix Memphis showed the world that the format is wide open and that nothing is truly too broken to overcome the raw power of Abzan Midrange or the consistency of R/W Aggro. True two-color control decks like U/B or U/W have a lot of tools, but not quite enough to compete with everything when they have to exchange cards one-for-one so often, with only Dig Through Time as their heavy hitter-the place Jace, Architect of Thought and Sphinx's Revelation once were. As a result, Sultai Control with Satyr Wayfinders to both enable delve and to protect your life total and planeswalkers is the preferred control route.
The format is slowing down quite a bit. The Abzan decks are forgoing Sylvan Caryatid in order to have less dead cards in the later game stages and to get better use out of End Hostilities and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. With slower midrange decks at the top, the next logical step is for the format is to take it one-step further in the slow direction and try to go over the top of each other. When that happens, it's time for the bubble to burst and for hyper-aggression to sweep their legs out from underneath them. Grand Prix Miami may be the perfect time to take advantage of the metagame's state.
I talked about Mono-Red for SCG Regionals here, and although I was at Pro Tour Fate Reforged that weekend and couldn't attend myself, I did receive feedback from several people that played the build to good results, including one first-place finish. Outpost Siege is very powerful, as is Searing Blood in a deck that can support it. Every deck has creatures, as it's too tough right now to run a pure creatureless deck. Even so, when your deck is full of dead Searing Bloods, they have more "dead" cards like Ugin and Dig Through Time, and the matchup isn't all too good for them in the first place.
Abzan Midrange seems to be the deck to beat and is one of Mono-Red's hardest matchups. So why play a deck that is a dog against the best and most played deck? Your game 1 is still reasonable. You just have to find ways to overcome their naturally good cards. You're pretty good against the rest of the field, especially other aggro decks with small creatures netting you full value out of your Wild Slashes and Searing Bloods.
Siege Rhino and Couser of Kruphix are always problems, and there has to be some card to either remove them or to make them not block. It's rather obnoxious for both cards to have so many abilities, but things are what they are and sideboard adjustments have to be made. The best options are:
I don't like the options that cost four mana, as you also have to dedicate sideboard slots to extra lands in order to accommodate the increase in mana curve. I've found that loading your deck with one-drops while still wanting to cast four-drops eventually leads to some awkward hands where you can't cast your spells on time. With the extra Mountains, you tend to flood out in the lategame as well. With a lower curve and less lands, you gain a sort of "virtual card advantage" in the fact that you draw more spells than your opponents per game. Even though your spells will be weaker than theirs, you also gain the benefit of having more options per turn than them in terms of sequencing. For the most part, decks like Abzan play what they can, when they can, and the line of play is fairly obvious.
This is what I should've played at Grand Prix Memphis:
- 20 Mountain
This is basically the Mono-Red Aggro/Tokens build that I wrote about a few weeks ago, minus two Mountains and two Outpost Siege to fill up to a full four each on Wild Slash, Searing Blood, and Lightning Strike. This gives the deck a significant chance to burn the opponent out after they've dealt with your initial wave of creatures. Nothing in this build costs more than three mana including the sideboard cards, so your lands/spell ratio remains intact.
The sideboard has Eidolon of the Great Revel for when your Searing Bloods don't have targets against decks like U/B Control. Bathe in Dragonfire is a new addition that does look foolish when compared with Stoke the Flames or Flame Slash, but it's a necessary evil against Courser of Kruphix and friends. I'm still a fan of Peak Eruption against the R/W decks packing Chained to the Rocks, and they probably won't see it coming. Hall of Triumph is really important against both decks with similar small creatures to trump them in combat and as a way to advance your board against decks with sweepers like Drown in Sorrow and Anger of the Gods. If it wasn't for its three-mana casting cost and legendary status, I'd really like to have more, and perhaps the second ought to find its way into the 75 anyway. Arc Lightning and Magma Spray gives you an edge against small creature decks, and the Magma Spray sometimes tags a key creature like Bloodsoaked Champion or Ashcloud Phoenix. Dash is incredibly powerful to get in surprise damage and not to overcommit to the battlefield; right now, a mix of Goblin Heelcutter as a means to evade blockers, like Siege Rhino, and Vaultbreaker, a four-power hit that turns excess Mountains into gas, both help to give you a fighting chance against people relying on Drown in Sorrow or Anger of the Gods to shore up their Mono-Red matchup.
This version of Mono-Red is rather simplified and doesn't have as many cool tricks or as many explosive draws as you would putting Hammerhands and Dragon Mantles onto Akroan Crusader. I feel like Mono-Red has enough strong cards right now not to play a heavily synergistic build.
But I sure do miss me a Legion Loyalist…
So what happened in Memphis? I somehow ended up a room across from Brad Nelson, Todd Anderson, and Brian Braun-Duin at our hotel. The night before, I was set on playing Mono-Red but was offered Brad's Abzan Control deck complete with sideboard Fleecemane Lions. He swore up and down that his deck was the best build, but without much recent play with Abzan, I wasn't comfortable with the sudden switch. Also it seemed like all the games would be long and grindy and that I perhaps wouldn't have an enjoyable tournament experience.
The morning of the tournament I did decide to switch decks, not to something good and fair, but to something fun and spicy, even if I risked losing to variance one way or another. I chose to go with my heart and register Chromanti-Flayer.
- 2 Butcher of the Horde
- 3 Flamewake Phoenix
- 2 Sagu Mauler
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 3 Soulflayer
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Chromanticore
This deck from last week's article attempts to play a bit on the fair side in a Chromanticore + Soulflayer shell. I ended up beating three Abzan decks in Memphis and losing to a variety of everything else: U/B Control, R/W Aggro, and Jeskai Control. I did mulligan a fair amount, but that's what I signed up for when I registered the deck, as a four/five-color manabase is hard to piece together no matter how perfect you think you've made the mana. As I'd pass by Brad Nelson throughout the tournament, I'd proudly say how much better my Chromanticore deck was than his boring ol' Abzan deck… at least on day 1…since I didn't make day 2, and he went a million-and-1 in his swiss matches.
I don't regret playing Chromanti-Flayer. I think it's an awesome deck that's close to being competitive. Brad's Abzan deck was clearly the best choice for the tournament and very likely so much better that it would've been better than the "best deck for me" in Mono-Red. The good news is that it looks like the format has pushed further into a direction that Mono-Red wants to be in, so it may be a blessing that Mono-Red has continued to sit in the shadows for so long.
A tournament behind me and I'm not one bit mad about the poor finish. Grand Prix Miami is around the corner, and I know that Mono-Red will give me a great chance to take it down. With that said, I'll still be on the hunt this week for something better. Maybe the best Chromanti-Flayer list ever will be discovered, or maybe Brad will break it again and he'll convince me this time around.