I was on the way home from the Season One Invitational in Richmond, which was a pretty awesome and entertaining weekend. While my performances weren't great, I didn't let myself get too bothered by it. The first Invitational of the year is always fun because it's been on the weekend of my birthday every time, and spending time with my friends matters much more than anything else. So in typical fashion, I only wanted a single thing when everyone asked me what I wanted.
Some good sleep for Sunday.
Maybe I'm getting Magic-old.
We got to see a whole slew of Standard decks make their way to the forefront, and the variations of those Standard decks were unbelievably vast. There were, at the very least, three different yet distinct variations of almost every single archetype in the top 16 of both the Open and the Invitational, and many, many more in the top 64. In short, everything is awesome, and I don't think that'll change, even through the Pro Tour.
It only seemed like a day or so before I was re-packing and preparing for Syracuse, however, and I took the opportunity to get a better feel for the G/R Aggro deck that we all played at a Tuesday IQ. And after losing my win-and-in, I got a better understanding of where the deck was excelling and where the holes were.
One of the biggest problems I noticed was Goblin Rabblemaster.
Before, Goblin Rabblemaster was the easiest way to get free wins in the format. In G/R decks, landing it on turn 2 was by far the best thing you could do, period. It was the reason to play the deck, and even if they dealt with it quickly, you still had the rest of your deck as cavalry.
This isn't the case anymore.
Wild Slash is everywhere, and the advent of many other two-mana removal spells--Ultimate Price, Roast, Bile Blight, Surge of Righteousness among many others--greatly weakened Rabblemaster as a singular non-synergistic threat. This doesn't even count the amount of creatures that can profitably block it or the sheer amount of inherent roadblocks, in general. Stoke the Flames greatly helps with this since it lets you continue developing your board while still leveraging that very development toward keeping the pressure on. Aggressive G/R decks have a hard time affording spells that don't maximize reach, and Crater's Claws does that way better than Stoke the Flames ever could without actually straining your resources (or red creatures). It's very easy to stay attached to a card that's great in a best case scenario, but when you're playing a deck that has a tough time getting out of even slightly unfavorable scenarios, more best case scenarios aren't the solution.
One of the other big issues I found was the lack of pressure I was actually putting on my opponent. Thunderbreak Regent is great, but if you're behind even slightly, the three damage won't help you. Stormbreath Dragon is still among the best Dragons out there but only if you're at parity or better. Boon Satyr is embarrassingly unstable, and it doesn't serve as a pump spell nearly as often as one might think. You aren't the most threatening deck on the ground either, because there are plenty of things that will gladly trade with you, even if doesn't seem favorable for them. Your deck is still a one-for-one deck, and any time you stop doing that, you're on the backfoot. While all of your threats demand answers, the moment they do, you have to find a plan B, which it isn't that great at creating.
So, how do we address these issues?
Well, how about we stop trying to be an aggro deck in the first place?
Chris VanMeter was the initial mind behind hatching this plan. His theory was that if we just try and become a big creature, aggressively-slanted midrange deck, instead of a big creature aggro deck, then I think many more options open up for us. He cited Seth Manfield's Invitational deck as a source to build upon.
So let's start from the ground up.
We know that Elvish Mystic is a shoe-in. It allows us to retain the explosive draws at a low opportunity cost. Rattleclaw Mystic is also great, and it makes for further explosiveness on the two-spot in addition to being a good fixer. From there, we can start to diverge.
We have a lot of three-drops available to us, but Stephen Mann had a particular comment that really changed the way I viewed the archetype.
"One day, people will play four Courser of Kruphix and never look back."
So I thought to myself, "What if he's right?" It could be the piece that bridges the gap between your early and midgame, and it's such a major piece of consistency in a deck that has needed such. It also adds a nice flow to your deck while helping you actually cast your larger spells. In a deck that relies so much on its mana accelerants, having another way to get mana is crucial. The other three-drops don't really fulfill the job that Courser is trying to do, so they may be out of this particular build. This means that we can go bigger, however.
Now we get to the protein of the deck. Thunderbreak Regent and Stormbreath Dragon are four-ofs for sure, but Ashcloud Phoenix is still a very powerful threat. It's good against almost every mid-game flying threat and avoids the overrepresentation of Roast, which is very important. It's also a nice way to keep up the amount of reach you have when in a very stalled gamestate.
So now, we're looking quite a bit bigger than the aggressive builds, but now we have more fliers. We can piece these fliers together with cards that help push through damage while also being decent removal spells. Crater's Claws is good for this, but Draconic Roar is much more efficient while also incidentally giving much needed reach. Roast was a serious underperformer, but we may still be invested in it since we've slowed down a decent amount. A nice healthy dose of Crater's Claws gives us easy access to big damage, but I'm less incentivized to play more than three this time around. We can maintain our longevity of our board position in ways that don't require us to have two of them to win. Outside of that, there are a few cheap spells that I'm mildly interested in, such as Ranger's Guile, but I don't want spells that don't do anything without a creature.
The manabase seems like an easy thing, but it's actually very difficult to put together. I think the major key that was missing before was Haven of the Spirit Dragon, and I think it's not only powerful but necessary. We haven't had a utility land that actually did something since Mutavault, and this one is what gives us an extended midgame while also just being red sources for our dragons. Because of this, combined with what Courser of Kruphix provides us, I think it's very much worth going up to the 24th land. You always want to hit your land drops, and you also have more things to do with your mana with the addition of Ashcloud Phoenix and Haven of the Spirit Dragon anyways. We can afford to play a couple of Rugged Highlands in addition to our Temples of Abandon and Wooded Foothills, mostly as ways to get red sources for Ashcloud Phoenix. Mana Confluence is usually a huge sign of lazy deckbuilding and manabase building, but given how our deck looks to be operating, it's probably worth including. A second one is far worse than the first because of how awful it is to have to work with two in a game, but we will have to see how the rest of the deck is built to really see.
Now that we have the primary shell and supporting cast, we still need to address a couple of issues. First, Elspeth, Sun's Champion is absolutely crippling against us, and none of these new additions really help that issue. Secondly, the mirror match may have gotten worse with this build.
We have a few more spots to work with, and again, Seth Manfield's build has the perfect solution for both of these issues.
It makes sense, really.
When there are big dragons, go with the bigger dragon. If there's a bigger dragon, go with the biggest, baddest dragon of them all. Dragonlord Atarka is the ultimate trump, and it shoots down and/or blocks anything that may be a problem. It ends the game extremely quickly, and it is the reason why we aren't all-in on the super narrow fourth Crater's Claws. It's also effective against cards that would otherwise be good against us, such as Hornet Nest, Hornet Queen, and most Planeswalkers, including Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.
Now, we have this massive seven-drop but not much more to support it. Xenagos, the Reveler is the inclusion here. It doesn't do anything groundbreaking, but it does do a little bit of everything that we need.
Securing our mana needs further compels us to go with Sylvan Caryatid over Rattleclaw Mystic. It sucks that we can't attack with them, but they actually block pretty well again, and it's way too hostile of an environment for Rattleclaw Mystic if we're trying to go that big. It's not the prettiest thing, but the trade works out here. I'm not going to play them without a sideboard configuration that involves siding them out, however.
Speaking of the sideboard, our options are vast and broad. For Syracuse, our expected environment involved a lot of mirrors, Jeskai Tokens, and Abzan Aggro, with a touch of Mono-Red Aggro and Heroic.
With all of this information under our belt, we can come to this:
- 2 Ashcloud Phoenix
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Stormbreath Dragon
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Thunderbreak Regent
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Dragonlord Atarka
Now, there's the risk of becoming a bad Abzan Aggro or midrange deck, but is G/R Aggro not risking becoming a bad Mono-Red Aggro or R/W/x Aggro deck? Yes, there are obviously qualities that give G/R its own identity, but let's be real, we're playing this deck because it's currently the best Thunderbreak Regent and Crater's Claws deck, not because it's necessarily better than either of those decks.
I want to go more in-depth, but I'm sure the bearded warrior has much more on what went behind the nuances and intricacies of the deck. With SCG State Championships coming up this weekend, I want to give a bit of attention to Modern, where I've been messing around with a bunch of different decks lately.
I had the chance to play in the Modern Premier IQ in Richmond, equipped with Burn. I was already high on the deck, and I learned a lot about the finer details about playing the deck optimally and maneuvering through hate.
Firstly, I learned that while the deck is probably very easy to pick up and play at around 60 to 70 percent, things get incredibly tough when you're trying to go past 90 percent. The hate against you is so powerful that your margin for error gets smaller at an alarmingly fast rate. Your card choices will matter much more, right down to the number of lands you play and the number of shocklands among them. Every single little bit of damage counts, and you simply cannot afford to lose a point of damage.
This is what I'd play for my Modern State Championships.
One of the really hyped cards for the set was Atarka's Command, but did we really need additional Skullcracks to begin with? Is taking more damage than we need to worth the extra +1/+1 that you might get? In a lot of scenarios this is great, but currently I'm not too high on it. The damage you take will matter a lot more, the green isn't nearly as readily available as white, and Leyline of Sanctity isn't that big a deal to begin with.
So, that's my weekend so far. I'd love to talk more, but this place called Dinosaur BBQ just served me the most unbelievable brisket, ribs, and pulled pork I've ever had. Hopefully I can keep the momentum in this day two after starting 0-3. Here's to Stormbreath Dragon!