A couple of weeks ago, I featured a couple of black and green ramp decks that I felt were going to be well-positioned in the metagame. I was planning on playing something in that area for Grand Prix Denver, as I really liked the way its cards could match up against the field. I have gotten quite a lot of testing in since then, so I wanted to bring that deck back into the spotlight and give it a thorough breakdown, from matchup analysis to sideboarding and everything in between.
Before we get to any of that, however, let's quickly catch up on how the list has evolved over the past few weeks. The main focus has been on improving the overall card quality of the deck while exploring what weaknesses exist for the list in our current metagame. Once you understand where you deck is lacking, your iteration process becomes a lot more streamlined as you are not shooting in the dark, so even your misses bring real value.
Here is a quick summary of the lessons learned these past two weeks:
Red is a good matchup. A great matchup, in fact. I constantly felt like I was overprepared for the matchup with too many cards specifically aimed at beating it. It wasn't that I had too many cards, as my sideboard plan slotted in well, but that the cards I had against it were not very good elsewhere. Jaddi Offshoot, for example, was basically only good against Ramunap Red and was sideboarded out everywhere else.
Beneath the Sands is underwhelming. The card had a real purpose and it did accelerate to five, but I almost never found myself playing it over a different three-drop when that option was available to me. Cycling it late is definitely better than Rampant Growth, which does nothing, but we aren't comparing it to Rampant Growth; we are comparing it to Gift of Paradise and Weirding Wood, which both bring additional benefits to the table.
My manabase needs work. Too many colorless sources. Too few black sources.
Too often I am at the mercy of the top of my deck. Usually this comes after I have dealt with an initial burst by the opponent and we are both drawing off the top. In theory, if I draw a spell that matters, I will pull way far ahead, as my spells are individually more powerful. However, I also have a lot of lands and one-for-one removal that make for lackluster topdecks. I am fine losing to the occasional runner-runner from an opponent, but when I notice that happen repeatedly, while luck may have an impact, I also know I need to make some adjustments to limit that impact.
Those points have led me to this current list.
- 4 Catacomb Sifter
- 2 Jaddi Offshoot
- 1 Ramunap Excavator
- 3 World Breaker
- 1 The Gitrog Monster
- 1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Why Black over Red?
When someone sees this list, they inevitably ask the above question. While I am happy to answer it by explaining the various benefits point by point (and I will shortly), I do think the question illustrates a common problem amongst Magic players. To demonstrate this, let me ask you a question:
Why Red over Black?
The same players asking me why I am playing black over red are very likely not able to answer this question. They are conflating the idea that the way something is with the way it should be, and I just don't buy into that. I want to make logical choices with reasoning and thought behind them. If, at the end of that road, G/R ramp is where I land, then so be it, but to just do something because others are doing it has no value to me.
I personally think people are playing G/R Ramp because ramp as an archetype is strong at the moment and red is a common pairing with green in such a deck. People are used to the formula of Kozilek's Return and expensive Eldrazi, so they are turning to what they know and are finding some success. I argue, however, that said success is not coming because of the red cards, but rather out of the strength of the archetype as a whole. Kozilek's Return has value, but is it irreplaceable? Abrade has value, but is there nothing that can compete with that value? I think that there is.
Reason number one to be black is Ifnir Deadlands. Any ramp deck is going to use a ton of Deserts to support Hour of Promise and the truth is that Ramunap Ruins is just not very good within a ramp shell. It can take down an occasional planeswalker, but I would much rather have a reusable removal spell that permanently shrinks things it doesn't have the fortune of killing.
The next big pull into black comes in the form of Catacomb Sifter. Sifter is strong in the current metagame as two bodies that can come down and disrupt most aggro decks while also getting you to that crucial five-mana point so that you can begin casting Hour of Promise. When you cast some removal spell on turn 1 or 2, followed by Sifter on 3 and then Hour on 4, you have made it to your late-game while constantly putting defensive barricades on the battlefield and slowing your opponent down. Scrying to look for your end-game is also notably strong in a deck without raw card advantage.
The biggest impact that black has over red as a whole is in the versatility it brings to the table. Red can kill creatures and it can kill artifacts, but that's about all it does within ramp. Black obviously can't kill artifacts, but green has that covered already. Meanwhile, black is attacking opposing creatures, planeswalkers, the opponent's hand, and the opponent's graveyard, and it has the huge benefit of having access to exiling effects. Losing Abrade might hurt your chance at killing Heart of Kiran, but gaining Collective Brutality helps your chances at taking a Refurbish, or Disallow, or gaining life against Mono Red. This versatility really shows itself off in our sideboard with cards like Doomfall and Flaying Tendrils which provide such powerful effects against their designated targets.
Last, there's deathtouch! As I have talked about many times before, I really value deathtouch in the current Standard. It is such a nice ability to have against Constrictor decks, Zombies, and most of the midrange stuff out there, while still being good against red. You do have access to some deathtouch in green, but it doesn't extend to Hissing Quagmire, Gifted Aetherborn, and The Gitrog Monster, which just do it better.
Lines and Interactions
At your core, you are a ramp deck with an interactive suite of lands to help prevent flooding and to help interact with the opponent. This is largely in line with what G/R Ramp is doing, but our manabase goes a step further with Ifnir Deadlands and Blighted Fen. Our late-game consists of casting Eldrazi fatties and using those utility lands, just like G/R. This is all to say that if you are familiar with G/R Ramp, you should be able to transition to here relatively easily. Our primary differences come down to individual cards and interaction points, which we shall discuss now.
Hour of Promise is arguably the most important card in your deck as it transitions you out of the early-game and into your Eldrazi and land interactions. That said, it also presents you with choices, and knowing what lands to fetch can make or break a game. Priority #1 is going to be Zombies. This means you want at least one Desert on the battlefield and you want to hit the three-Desert threshold. If you are casting Hour on turn 4 especially, it can be easy to spend your turns playing Hissing Quagmire and Blooming Marsh, as those are the lands you usually want to play first, but if you are holding a couple of Deserts in hand, you should absolutely get one out by turn 3 and another by turn 4. Having the freedom to find Blighted Fen or Shrine of the Forsaken Gods can turn a game around for you.
When you have Ulamog in your hand, you will often want to find two Shrines, even if that denies you the Zombies. This doesn't happen often, but is a notable exception to the above suggestion.
Liliana (either) plus The Gitrog Monster: Many people miss that milling a land will trigger The Gitrog Monster, but this is an important interaction, and with two copies of Liliana now in the list, it comes up much more often. Use this to draw some cards when you are in a rough spot.
"Stat changes plus Warping Wail or Flaying Tendrils" is also a fairly common interaction to come up. Because we have four removal spells that change the size of a creature, we will often combine them to take down larger creatures, or else to shrink them to either one power or toughness where a Warping Wail can then finish the job. While this is not something we go in looking to do, it is good to be aware of.
One of the concessions you have to make when playing ramp in the current environment is that you are going to have some dead cards in certain matchups. In order to stay competitive with aggro, you need to include some cheap spot removal or lifegain that is going to be pretty bad against U/R Control or U/W Control. This is a strategically sound choice to make, as you cannot afford to stumble against aggro, but we can still alleviate the negative consequences here by having a good sideboard.
Our maindeck is proactive enough that we can win games after drawing a few less-than-great cards. Collective Brutality can convert a dead draw into something relevant and Ulamog and World Breaker are powerful enough to feel like two or three cards. But our sideboard has the ability to shave those cards for powerful cards in the given matchup. This is an area where black really shines over red, as our sideboard is just so much richer and has solutions to a much wider range of cards.
As a quick refresh, here are the fifteen cards we are packin' in our sidecar.
This is a matchup that I feel very confident in. While Ramunap Red can always steal a game with a particularly brutal set of topdecks, we win nearly every game in which that doesn't happen. More lifegain and removal in the sideboard help to solidify this and we can actually shave down on our big creatures because of this.
We increase our deathtouch count here while improving our ways of stopping their most explosive draws. I have been bringing in the Ulamog to reach a point where we are just overwhelming them, although there is certainly an argument for keeping the curve a bit a lower to avoid slow draws. I just don't like reaching a point where it feels like I can't lose and then losing, which Ulamog helps prevent.
This matchup needs the most work of any and so I am looking into potential areas to gain more of an edge. That said, this is hardly a bad matchup and we probably win it more often than not, but there are situations that cause us issues, such as the second copy of Liliana's Mastery, and I would not mind finding small improvements. We will look into this shortly.
U/W Approach of the Second Sun
A super-easy matchup as long as you bait with the right spells and use the information you take from their hand wisely. Harsh Scrutiny is actually a fine card here despite whiffing in most cases because the information is so valuable.
Most control decks are very easy to beat as long as you hit your land drops and play to your long-game, which tends to trump anything they can do. Always bait a counterspell when they have four mana available to deny them a draw spell on that turn. Always wait to Harsh Scrutiny until turn 4 or 5 to have the best chance at taking Glorybringer or a Gearhulk.
Our end-games are nearly identical but we have many more tools to keep them off theirs. Collective Brutality and Warping Wail deal with Hour of Promise and we can interact with their mana creatures as well. Blighted Fen and Harsh Scrutiny are also some great ways at stopping their Ulamog that they simply do not have against us.
A matchup that we can definitely lose to a string of Gideons or something, but also a matchup with a lot of give and take and plenty of opportunity to gain an advantage and run with it.
This matchup tends to be about patience. If you are holding on to your Scavenger Grounds and keeping open mana for your Warping Wails and Dissenter's Deliverance, you shouldn't have too many problems.
Of any deck in the format, this one steals the most wins from us. It is not that we can't deal with any particular card in their deck, but they tend to present so many must-answers that we run short of answers and are susceptible to that last Bristling Hydra or Chandra in their hand. Use your removal wisely and try to set up your Edict effects to deal with the hexproof nuisances.
Up in the Air
I am feeling quite confident with the deck as a whole, but I am also always looking to improve it until the last possible moment. The way I see it, as I gain information, I should use that to inform my deck and it just so happens that you get more information as the event nears. There is risk of overreacting, of course, but I have been around the block a few times by now and feel I make reasonable judgments in the midnight hour.
I think my biggest area of concern currently lies in those Thought-Knot Seers. While I love the card, the harsh truth is that four toughness is a real liability right now. I don't mind when my Catacomb Sifter becomes the target of a Glorybringer or Chandra, Torch of Defiance, but when Thought-Knot Seer does, that is much more of an issue. Usually, when you bring in T-KS, the opponent will be lower on removal, but it seems no one is ever sideboarding out those red curve toppers and instead opponents will often sideboard them in. Overall, this makes Thought-Knot Seer a solid card against control and combo, but it lacks application elsewhere.
In theory, we could upgrade those slots to serve us better. For example, as we occasionally struggle in the topdeck phase against Zombies (after we have dealt with their initial rush and are now worried about Liliana's Mastery and Diregraf Colossus off the top), it might be worth finding more ways to stay afloat here. We added Liliana, the Last Hope and Weirding Wood to help in this area and they have, but we can go a step further too.
For example, we have no copies of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in our list. That card helps a ton against Zombies, has some natural synergy with our deck, and is a source of lifegain against red. Of course, Kalitas is not the best against control, but imagine if one of our Jaddi Offshoots upgraded to Kalitas in the maindeck. At that point, we have improved essentially every one of our matchups other than Ramunap Red, which only takes a slight hit.
This could cause a shift of a Jaddi Offshoot to the sideboard, if we need the third at all. Another potential replacement for T-KS is a second copy of Doomfall. Doomfall fills a similar role to T-KS against control, yet is much more palatable against Zombies and Ramunap Red, where it deals with problematic cards that have already entered the battlefield, in addition to being a T-KS against a full hand.
- 4 Catacomb Sifter
- 1 Ramunap Excavator
- 3 World Breaker
- 1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
- 1 The Gitrog Monster
- 1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
For anyone coming out to Grand Prix Denver this week, be sure to stop by and say hi! And if you happen to be playing this list and have any questions, definitely feel free to ask! I feel pretty confident with how the deck has come together and with how it attacks the metagame but will be iterating on it until the last possible minute. Hopefully, by the time you hear from me next week, that work will have paid off. Good luck brewing!